Sources for African American Medical History at Archives & Special Collections

photo of doctors in surgery

As we celebrate Black History Month this February, researchers may be curious as to what holdings Archives & Special Collections has documenting African Americans at the Columbia University Medical Center.

Unfortunately, many of our records show how Columbia obstructed the entry of African Americans into the health sciences.  In 1850, the medical faculty expelled student James Parker Barnett from the College of Physicians & Surgeons on account of his “African blood.” Later, in 1877, it resolved by a lop-sided margin that “this College will decline to receive ‘colored’ applicants for matriculation.” It was only in 1908 that the first acknowledged African American, Travis Johnson, received the medical degree from Columbia.  Even after this breakthrough, Black and African American students remained rare for much of the rest of the century with only 15 graduating from the medical school by 1940.

For this and other reasons, documentation of Black and African American physicians, nurses, dentists and other health science professionals at Columbia remains scarce in our holdings.  But scarce doesn’t mean “none.” One important source is the Central Records of the Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences/Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Two folders titled “Negroes” and “Negro Students” contain statistics on all early 20th century Black and African American medical students including those who didn’t graduate. The folders also have materials dating into the 1980s documenting the medical school’s efforts to increase the number of Black and African American students.

In addition, Archives & Special Collections holds faculty minutes, yearbooks, catalogs, and a myriad of other materials which trace the history of Blacks and African Americans at the medical center.

Another rich source on the history of African American health are the medical school’s records relating to Harlem Hospital.  In the early 1960s, the medical school established an affiliation with this important municipal hospital which had an overwhelmingly Black patient population.  Both the VP Office’s Central Records and the records of Vagleos College of Physicians & Surgeons (VP&S) Assistant Dean Melvin Yahr have voluminous documentation on the college’s involvement with Harlem including both the initial affiliation efforts and subsequent developments.

The first Black faculty member at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons doesn’t seem to have been appointed until 1939 when Thomas Patrick, Jr., was named Assistant Pediatrician at the Vanderbilt Clinic. As with students, the number of African American faculty were slow to increase over the decades. Not surprisingly then papers of African American faculty are scarce.  But we do have some, including:

Papers of Elizabeth Davis (VP&S 1949): An early African American psychiatrist, Davis was the first chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Harlem Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at VP&S.  Though the bulk of her papers can be found at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, she donated a small collection of her speeches and unpublished papers to Archives & Special Collections.

Papers of Kenneth A. Forde (VP&S 1959): Legendary surgeon, University trustee, and mentor to generations of VP&S African American students, Forde pioneered the use of colonoscopy to combat colon cancer. His papers contain correspondence, reprints of his scientific articles, educational records, photographs, a videotape, and general biographical information.

The papers of several white faculty members also include important materials on African Americans and their role in the history of medicine. These include:

Papers of Viola Wertheim Bernard: A psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Bernard had a life-long commitment to the racial integration of medicine in general and the psychiatric profession in particular.  As such she was mentor, advisor and, on occasion, financial supporter, to a number of African American medical students.  Her papers contain substantial correspondence with several important early black psychiatrists/psychoanalysts including Columbia graduates/faculty members Elizabeth Davis (VP&S 1949) and Margaret Morgan Lawrence (VP&S 1940).

Papers of Jack Elinson: The first chair of the Mailman School’s Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Elinson directed the Harlem Hospital Department of Patient Care and Program Evaluation from 1966 to 1971. The department’s mission was to analyze Harlem Hospital Center’s impact on the health and health care of Harlem residents. The records relating to this in Elinson’s papers include annual reports, correspondence and memoranda, data, financial records, forms and questionnaires, maps, printed matter, proposals, publications and presentations, reports, and surveys. Subjects documented include doctor/patient relationships in Harlem, health services and information needs within the community, and quality of care at Harlem Hospital during the 1960s and 1970s.

Longitudinal Harlem Adolescent Health Study Records: The Longitudinal Harlem Adolescent Health Study (LHAHS) studied for 25 years (1968-1993) the health needs and conditions of 668 Black adolescents who were 12 to 17 years old initially and lived in the Central Harlem Health District of New York City.  The LHAHS was the nation’s first community-based sociomedical survey of the health problems of teenagers and was one of the most significant such surveys in the U.S. in the 20th century. The records primarily consist of an almost complete set of the interview questionnaires completed by the interviewer in a face-to-face session with the participant. Also included are background articles and reports, brochures, interviewer’s manuals, survey codebooks, and a surveyor’s kit from 1989.

Other collections which while not primarily concerned with African Americans may still hold relevant materials include the Maternity Center Association records, the Visiting Nurse Service of New York records, and the Judy Wessler papers.

For more information on these holdings and how to access them please contact us at

Photo: Kenneth A. Forde (VP&S 1959) with a patient, circa 1980.