Alexander Thomas Augusta

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Alexander Thomas Augusta
Alexander Thomas Augusta
Born(1825-03-08)March 8, 1825
DiedDecember 21, 1890(1890-12-21) (aged 65)
Known forAmerican Civil War surgeon

Alexander Thomas Augusta (March 8, 1825 – December 21, 1890) was a surgeon, veteran of the American Civil War, and the first black professor of medicine in the United States. After gaining his medical education in Toronto in the Province of Canada, from 1850 to 1856, he set up a practice there. He returned to the United States shortly before the start of the American Civil War.

Augusta offered his services to the United States Army and in 1863, he was commissioned as major and the Army's first African-American physician; he became the first black hospital administrator in U.S. history while serving in the army.[1] He left the army in 1866 at the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel.[2]

In 1868 Augusta was the first African American to be appointed to the faculty of Howard University and the first to any medical college in the United States.


Augusta was born in 1825 to free people of color in Norfolk, Virginia. As a young man, he began to learn to read while working as a barber, although it was illegal for free blacks to do so in Virginia at that time. The state had restricted rights of free people of color following the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831.

Augusta moved to Baltimore while still in his youth. He also began pursuing an education in the field of medicine. He married Baltimore native Mary O. Burgoin on January 12, 1847.

Medical training

Augusta applied to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania but was refused admission. Although he faced institutionalized racism later in his career, the university cited inadequate preparation in its rejection of him.[3] Augusta persisted in his education and arranged for private instruction from a doctor on the faculty. As he was determined to become a physician, Augusta travelled to California and earned the funds to pursue his goal of becoming a doctor.

Concerned that he would not be allowed to enroll in medical school in the U.S., in 1850 he enrolled at Trinity College of the University of Toronto. He also conducted business as a druggist and chemist. Six years later he received a degree in medicine.

Medical career

Augusta remained in Toronto, Canada West, establishing a medical practice. The City of Toronto appointed him as director of an industrial school. He supported local antislavery activities, which supported the American movement. He also founded the Provincial Association for the Education and Elevation of the Coloured People of Canada, a literary society that donated books and other school supplies to black children. Augusta left Canada for the West Indies in about 1860, returning to Baltimore at the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861.[3]

American Civil War

Augusta went to Washington, D.C., where he wrote President Abraham Lincoln offering his services as a surgeon. He was given a Presidential commission in the Union Army in October 1862. On April 4, 1863, he received a major's commission as surgeon for African-American troops. This made him the United States Army's first African-American physician (of a total of eight) and its highest-ranking African-American officer at the time. He was also appointed to lead the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, DC in 1863, becoming the first black hospital administrator in U.S. history.[2]

Some whites resented Augusta's having such a high rank; while wearing his officer's uniform, he was mobbed in Baltimore during May 1863 (where three people were arrested for assault) and in another incident in Washington.[4] On October 2, 1863, he was commissioned Regimental Surgeon of the Seventh U.S. Colored Troops.[5] In March 1865, he was awarded a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel, and left the service the following year at that rank.[2]

Activism against discrimination

While in the military, Augusta spoke out about discrimination suffered by African Americans in society. On February 1, 1864, Augusta wrote to Judge Advocate Captain C. W. Clippington about discrimination against African-American passengers on the streetcars of Washington, D.C.:

Sir: I have the honor to report that I have been obstructed in getting to the court this morning by the conductor of car No. 32, of the Fourteenth Street line of the city railway.

I started from my lodgings to go to the hospital I formerly had charge of to get some notes of the case I was to give evidence in, and hailed the car at the corner of Fourteenth and I streets. It was stopped for me and when I attempted to enter the conductor pulled me back, and informed me that I must ride on the front with the driver as it was against the rules for colored persons to ride inside. I told him, I would not ride on the front, and he said I should not ride at all. He then ejected me from the platform, and at the same time gave orders to the driver to go on. I have therefore been compelled to walk the distance in the mud and rain, and have also been delayed in my attendance upon the court. I therefore most respectfully request that the offender may be arrested and brought to punishment.

His letter was printed in New York and Washington newspapers. On February 10, 1864, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner introduced a resolution in Congress:

Resolved, That the Committee on the District of Columbia be directed to consider the expediency of further providing by law against the exclusion of colored persons from the equal enjoyment of all railroad privileges in the District of Columbia.

To support his resolution, Sumner read to the assemblage Dr. Augusta's letter.[6] Edward Bates, the Attorney General in President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, belittled the incident and senators who supported Sumner.[7] but earlier in his career, in St. Louis, Missouri, he had defended slaves in freedom suits.

In 1865 Augusta wrote a letter to Major General Lewis Wallace, protesting the unequal treatment of African-American train passengers, who were forced to sit in segregated sections. That letter preceded the Plessy v. Ferguson case[8] which challenged racial segregation on public transportation in the U.S. On March 13, 1865, he was brevetted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

On February 26, 1868, Augusta testified before the United States Congressional Committee on the District of Columbia with regard to Mrs. Kate Brown. Mrs. Brown, an employee of Congress and an African American, had been injured when an employee of the Alexandria, Washington, and Georgetown Railroad forcibly ejected her from a passenger car. The railroad was prohibited by its federal charter from discrimination against passenger because of race.[9]

Later years

Mustering out of the service in October 1866, Augusta accepted an assignment with the Freedmen's Bureau, heading the agency's Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia. While there, he encouraged African-American self-help, urged the freedmen to support independent institutions, and gained respect from the city's white physicians.

Augusta returned to private practice in Washington, D.C. He was attending surgeon to the Smallpox Hospital in Washington in 1870. He also served on the staff of the local Freedmen's Hospital, which he had directed for a period during the war.

Augusta taught anatomy in the recently organized medical department at Howard University from November 8, 1868, to July 1877, becoming the first African American appointed to the faculty of the school and also of any medical college in the U.S. He received honorary degrees of M.D. in 1869 and A.M. in 1871 from Howard in recognition of his contributions.[10][11]

Despite his accomplishments, Dr Augusta was repeatedly refused admission to the local society of physicians. On June 9, 1869, Augusta and Charles Burleigh Purvis were proposed for membership of the Medical Society of DC, a branch of the American Medical Association. They were considered eligible, but did not receive enough votes. Another black physician, A. W. Tucker, was proposed on June 23, but was also rejected. In response, these three formed the National Medical Society.[12] He feared this exclusion would impede the progress of younger African-American physicians in the city, and worked against such racial discrimination.

He died in Washington on December 21, 1890, interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. He is buried in Section 1, Lot 124A, map grid G/33.[13]

Augusta's headstone reads as follows: "Commissioned surgeon of colored volunteers, April 4, 1863, with the rank of Major. Commissioned regimental surgeon of the 7th Regiment of US. Colored Troops, October 2, 1863. Brevet Lieutenant Colonel of Volunteers, March 13, 1865, for faithful and meritorious services-mustered out October 13, 1866."[2]

See also


  1. ^ "Freedmen's Hospital/Howard University Hospital (1862– )",
  2. ^ a b c d Heather M. Butts, JD, MPH, MA."Alexander Thomas Augusta Physician, Teacher and Human Rights Activist", National Library of Medicine
  3. ^ a b "Augusta, Alexander T.(1825–1890) - Surgeon, physician, educator", Chronology, Early Work in Toronto City Hospital", JRank
  4. ^ C. Peter Ripley, The Black Abolitionist Papers, UNC Press, 1992, p. 204.
  5. ^ Williams, George Washington. A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion 1861–1865. New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1887, p. 143.
  6. ^ United States Congress. Congressional Globe: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the First Session of the Thirty-Eighth Congress. Edited by John C. Rives. Washington, DC: Congressional Globe Office, 1864, pp. 553-53, 816-18.
  7. ^ Bates, Edward. The Diary of Edward Bates 1859-1866. Edited by Howard K. Beale. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1933, p. 331.
  8. ^ Surgeon A. T. Augusta to Major General L. Wallace, January 20, 1865, A-63 1865, Letters Received, ser. 2343, Middle Dept. & 8th Army Corps, National Archives & Records Administration RG 393 Pt. 1 [C-4147]., accessed November 15, 2007.
  9. ^ Rep. Com. No. 131, United States. Senate. Reports of Committees of the Senate of the United States for the Second Session Fortieth Congress, 1867–'68. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1868.
  10. ^ Howard University Medical Department, Washington, D.C., Howard University School of Medicine, reprint of 1900 edition, pp. 110-111.
  11. ^ "A Short History of the Howard University College of Medicine" Archived 2007-10-28 at the Wayback Machine, last accessed November 14, 2007.
  12. ^ Morris, Karen Sarena, "The Founding of the National Medical Association" (2008). Yale Medicine Thesis Digital Library. Paper 360.
  13. ^ "Alexander T. Augusta, Major, United States Army", Arlington National Cemetery website, accessed November 14, 2007.

External links

  • "Alexander Thomas Augusta". Find a Grave. Retrieved 2009-03-01.