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Exhibit Uncovers Stories Of African-American Physicians During Civil War

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Gabe Rosenberg
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Judith Wiener, OSU Health Sciences Library assistant director of collections and outreach, helped bring the exhibit to campus.

Some 200,000 African-Americans served as soldiers in the Civil War. Quite a lot fewer served as doctors or nurses - just 13, to be exact.

A new exhibit at the Ohio State Medical Heritage Center - called "Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African-Americans in Civil War Medicine" - tells their stories. 

Judith Wiener, assistant director of collections and outreach at the OSU Health Sciences Library, says that the exhibit is key in looking at the larger picture.

In the 19th century, the medical field was far less formalized - despite that, free African-Americans had few ways to break in. 

"You have, I believe it was, one-third of all physicians - black, white, any race - going through a medical education program," Wiener says. "Of those medical colleges, I believe only 10 percent would accept African-Americans.”

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Credit Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Alexander T. Augusta

Elsewhere, physicians were trained in apprenticeships - or had to get their first experiences on the field.

So it's no surprise that few African-Americans could work as surgeons and nurses during the Civil War. And those free men and women who did serve were placed in segregated units and hospitals. 

Surgeons, however, took on positions of authority - a first for many free black men. In some cases, it placed them in charge of white physicians, a point of some conflict.

The exhibit highlights in particular one Dr. Alexander T. Augusta. A Virginian, Augusta was appointed surgeon-in-charge of Contraband Hospital outside Washington, DC, serving free blacks and former slaves.

Refused admittance to medical school in the States, Augusta moved to Canada for his education and to begin his career. When the war broke out, Augusta wrote to President Abraham Lincoln requesting an appointment as a medical officer.

During and after the war, Augusta insisted upon wearing his uniform - a sign of rank - out in public.

"He was actually ganged up upon and beaten for doing that," Wiener says. "This was a controversial thing for an African-American at that time to wear - and this was a Union uniform."

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Credit US National Archives
Contraband Hospital in Alexandria, VA.

Wiener says that African-American physicians not only treated soldiers, they served as catalysts for change.

In a separate, and very public, incident, Augusta was refused a seat on a covered DC streetcar. His cause was taken up by many newspapers and by Senator Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist. Within a year, Congress moved to desegregated streetcars in the nation's capitol.

"It was a long road after this for segregation," Wiener says, "and that really spoke to the need for the Civil Rights Movement much later."

Those 13 physicians, however, did help open up opportunities for African-Americans to pursue education and enter the professional workforce - if slowly at first.

“People started thinking differently about race and rank and what that means for service for our country," Wiener says.

The exhibit, which is on loan from the National Library of Medicine, will be on display through November 5.