Science, Inventions, Medicine, and Aerospace


What free blacks practiced medicine in the antebellum North?

A handful of free blacks practiced medicine in the antebellum North, yet they cannot be described as forming a professional class. In the tradition of the time, they were self-taught, apprentice-trained, or college educated. Those who were self-instructed included James Still (1812–1882) of New Jersey, whose contemporaries called him the “black doctor” and “doctor of the pines.” He was born in Indian Mill (or Mills), Burlington County, New Jersey, the son of a former slave who had purchased his freedom from his master in Maryland; later the family moved to Lumberton, where Still spent the remainder of his life. His two brothers, William and Peter, were prominent abolitionists: William became an agent on the Underground Railroad while Peter became the author of The Kidnapped and the Ransomed. James Still had very little education but a desire to be a doctor. In 1843, when he was thirty-one, he began to make medicines to sell in his neighborhood. He bought his first medical books soon afterward, but began to practice medicine quite by accident when his medicine cured a neighbor’s daughter of scrofula. Still’s practice grew and so did his reputation as a successful practitioner. Even charges against him for practicing without a license were dropped. His practice grew large, consisting of both white and black patients who flocked to his office; he used his horse and buggy to visit others in the deep woods.


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