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Pioneers in Care

First African-American Physicians at Northwestern Medicine

Between 1920 and 1964, less than three percent of medical students in the United States were black.

In 1956, there were only 14 black physicians practicing at six of Chicago’s hospitals.

By 1963, 43 black physicians practiced at 69 not-for-profit, private hospitals in Chicago.*

Today, roughly 6 percent of physicians in the United States are African American. This number continues to grow as more academic health systems like Northwestern Medicine establish diversity and inclusion as a strategic objective.

Northwestern Medicine is honored to have seen great African-American leaders in medicine pave the way for caregivers today. Here's an overview of the milestones reached by African-American physician leaders throughout Northwestern Medicine’s history.

First Physician

Twenty years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to end slavery in the United States, Daniel Hale Williams, MD, graduated from Chicago Medical College, known today as Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Williams was the first African-American graduate of the institution and one of the most notable general surgeons in the early 20th century.

In 1891, Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital, the first interracial hospital owned and operated by someone who was African American. At Provident, Dr. Williams performed one of the first successful cardiac surgeries.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland appointed Dr. Williams surgeon-in-chief at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Williams was a founding member of the American College of Surgeons and the National Medical Association.

Today, the Daniel Hale Williams Society of the Feinberg School of Medicine focuses on recruiting African-American males into the medical profession.

First Faculty

Theodore K. Lawless, MD, born 1892, was an internationally regarded dermatologist and the first African-American to hold a faculty post at what’s now Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. After his post-graduate studies, which led him from Columbia University to Harvard Medical School to Europe, Dr. Lawless began clinical research at Northwestern University in 1924. He was the Elizabeth J. Ward Fellow in Dermatology from 1928 to 1936, and then he served as a member of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine faculty until 1940.

“The students loved him,” said John Martin, MD, neurosurgeon and colleague. “[They] flocked to him because he was just a natural-born teacher. He had a good sense of humor. He had a big practice.”

The Chicago Tribune wrote that Dr. Lawless “[…] figured in hundreds of remarkable cures in cases of rare and baffling skin diseases, bringing himself and the Northwestern Medical School to the attention of the country’s medical profession.”

Dr. Lawless was also active in business, civic and philanthropic endeavors in the Chicagoland area. He died in 1971.

Paving the Way

In 1962, Edward W. Beasley, MD, and Allwyn H. Gatlin, MD, were the first African-American physicians to join the medical staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s predecessor, Chicago Wesley Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Beasley was a Georgia native who received his medical degree in 1923 from what’s now Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and honored in 1973 by Chicago Pediatric Society for distinguished service. He died in 1977 and was remembered fondly as one of Chicago’s beloved pediatricians.

Dr. Gatlin was born in Texas and completed his fellowship in obstetrics and gynecology in 1953 at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, where he later joined the faculty. He was a popular teacher and colleague, and was honored with Emeritus status in 1984. He directed the Ambulatory Care Clinic at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital and died in 2003.

Northwestern Medicine salutes these barrier-breaking physicians and remains dedicated to keeping their legacy alive through an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Learn more about diversity at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

*Source: Northwestern Medicine Archivist Susan Sacharski, Northwestern Medicine Archives and Martin D. Hiatt, MD, MS, MBA and Christopher Stockton, MSM, The Impact of the Flexner Report on the Fate of Medical Schools in North America After 1909.