PMHx: Queen’s sordid black medical student ban

How a vote in 1918 derailed the lives of several soon-to-be doctors

April 21, 2020

By Wendy Glauser

pmhx-copyOn Jan. 4, 1918 the board of the faculty of medicine at Queen’s University met to consider a letter from dean James C. Connell regarding the university’s approximately 15 black medical students. “It seems impossible to break down the repugnance of many people to receiving intimate services from negro students,” the letter read. Soldiers, he wrote, “have absolutely refused” such services. On Jan. 25, the Queen’s senate passed a resolution to ban black students from admission to the faculty.

Edward Thomas, a current PhD student in cultural studies at Queen’s, has searched for documentation of complaints, and hasn’t found any. While he can’t prove that soldiers didn’t complain, he has found evidence for another rationale for the ban.

Archival documents show that dean Connell was under pressure to improve the school’s “C” ranking, a grade set by the American Medical Association’s council on medical education. AMA policies at the time show that the organization was adhering to the racist recommendations of a 1910 report by education reformer Abraham Flexner. “The practice of the Negro doctor will be limited to his own race,” Flexnor wrote in the report, elaborating that black doctors’ primary importance was preventing infectious disease outbreaks in black communities from spreading to white population centres.

Shortly after the ban was announced, Queen’s was awarded a provisional “B” ranking. The ban only applied to black medical students, the only identity group singled out in the Flexnor report. “Queen’s had South Asian, East Asian and Hispanic students, but none of them were subject to the ban,” Thomas told the Medical Post.

Understanding the “whys” of the ban is important to Thomas. He cited the historian Dr. Ibram Kendi who argues that institutional racism is more often established in a top-down way—through policies that inspire racist beliefs and actions—than the other way around. “The archival evidence suggests that the anti-black sentiment on campus got significantly worse after the ban was announced,” Thomas said, pointing to evidence of a minstrel show mocking the black medical students and increasingly racist content in the school’s paper.

Thomas used multiple archives and school records to identify and trace the stories of the black Caribbean students who were enrolled at the time. Many were asked to leave; about half did, many of whom completed their medical education in the U.K. Many among the remaining half graduated after soliciting colonial authorities’ help challenging the ban. In a letter to Thomas E. Fell, the acting governor of Barbados, members of the West Indies club at Queen’s questioned the purported basis of the ban. “From the time coloured West Indian students have been in attendance at Queen’s—a period of 25 years—there is not an instance on record of white patients objecting to being treated in any way by them,” the letter read.

I believe the number one indicator of whether someone is going to make it into medical school and become a doctor is whether their parent was a doctor. If you disrupt that process for a hundred years, what are you expecting at the end of it?

Several of the students who were affected by the ban went on to important careers. Dr. Hugh Gordon Cummins became the premier of Barbados and abolished legislation that supported indentured slavery. Dr. Simeon A. Hayes went on to become a co-founding director of a major Caribbean financial conglomerate. Dr. Curtis Theophilius Skeete began his own medical practice in Freeport, Long Island, and eventually went on to form the East Long Island chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Other black medical students’ careers were derailed by the Queen’s ban. One of them, Ethelbert Bartholomew, a fourth-year medical student in good standing, left immediately after the ban. Unable to complete his studies elsewhere, he worked as a Montreal-based porter with Canadian Pacific Railway.

In 2019, the ban, which Thomas discovered had never been officially repealed, was formerly struck down by Queen’s senate. That same year, a special posthumous degree from the University was awarded to Dr. Bartholomew and accepted by his son, Daniel. Dr. Bartholomew’s great niece is now a practising gastroenterologist. She told the Queen’s Journal she felt “happiness and joy … mixed with sadness about what was stolen” and the “enormity of the injustice.”

The re-entrance of black students to Queen’s medical faculty only began in the mid-1960s. An article in Queen’s Journal in 1964 described a discrimination committee formed by the graduate student society to investigate “a long-standing rumour at Queens that the Faculty of Medicine practised discrimination in toto against negroes.” Faculty members confirmed the rumour, justifying it with the argument that black students would be better trained “in more cosmopolitan cities where the residents were more tolerant,” according to the article. The year after the article was published, a black medical student was admitted.

But the ban, and similar policies throughout Canada and the U.S., has had lasting effects. “The history of black physician training is that black physicians have and continue to do extremely well when they go to medical school. However, we should be aware that there was a very long history—100 years in North America—of organizations responsible for medicine doing their best to drive black people out of the profession,” said Thomas.

“I believe the number one indicator of whether someone is going to make it into medical school and become a doctor is whether their parent was a doctor. If you disrupt that process for a hundred years, what are you expecting at the end of it?”

Since Thomas presented his research to the Queen’s faculty of medicine, the school has taken steps to confront the continued barriers facing black students wishing to enter medicine. The faculty has established a mentorship program as well as a scholarship for an incoming black medical student. In the fall of 2019, the history of the Queen’s ban was introduced into the curriculum for all first-year medical students.

This feature appeared in the April 2020 issue of the Medical Post. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine or CanadianHealthcareNetwork.ca. It’s free and easy for Canadian doctors and medical students.

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