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Authors Share Story of African-American Doctors Caring for Troops in World War I

By Lauren Bigge
NMHM Public Affairs Coordinator

During World War I, African-American doctors volunteered to care for the men who served in the U.S. Army's segregated combat units, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. More than 100 of those doctors graduated from the Medical Officers Training Camp (MOTC) at Fort Des Moines in Iowa. Authors W. Douglas Fisher and Joann Buckley shared details of their research on those 104 doctors with a Medical Museum Science Café audience on Sept. 26 at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, as part of the museum's ongoing commemoration of the centennial of World War I.

Fisher, a veteran Army and Foreign Service officer, was inspired to research these doctors because he read diaries and letters belonging to his grandfather, John North Douglas, a white U.S. Army major who commanded the supply train for the 92nd Division in France during World War I. He discovered that his grandfather had formed a friendship with Lt. Jonathan Rucker, an African-American doctor who cared for 500 soldiers in the 92nd. He wondered what had happened to Rucker after the war, which prompted Fisher and Buckley, a former teacher, to begin sleuthing. "We went to Fort Des Moines, where Rucker trained, to find more," Buckley said, noting that Rucker went there because the Iowa base was the location for the Medical Officers Training Camp-Colored during World War I. Rucker went to France in 1918 with the division's 317th Motor Supply Train, and served as one of three black officers under the command of Douglas; the other officers were a dentist and a chaplain. "I could not believe Rucker was the only African-American doctor," Buckley said.

"Prior to World War I, the U.S. Army was small and entirely segregated," Fisher explained. "Black officers in the Army were virtually non-existent. Between 1917 and 1919, 400,000 African-American men served in the Army. They endured combat. One doctor was actually killed in the field.

Fisher and Buckley searched through files at the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and at various historical societies and libraries. In the last box they combed through at the National Archives, Buckley found a nondescript, folded piece of paper. It was the 100-year-old list of names, hometowns, medical schools and graduation dates of the 104 African-American doctors. "The list was in an ancient folder of the U.S. Army Surgeon General," Buckley recalled. It had been typed on many sheets of paper, glued together, and then folded multiple times. When unfolded, "it was four feet long and 18 inches wide."

Their in-depth research continued. Harvard professor and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., met Fisher and Buckley by chance in a hotel elevator, and he subsequently hired them to write 15 biographies for his African American National Biography. They went on to write about such doctors as Frank Erdman Boston, Thomas Edward Jones, and Egbert Theophilus Scott in their book African American Doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers.

Dr. Boston was assigned as a medical officer with the 317th Engineers Regiment of the 92nd. He treated soldiers while under aerial and gas attack. After World War I, he ran a free clinic in Philadelphia for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Dr. Jones served as a lieutenant in Company C of the First Separate Battalion, an African-American component of the District of Columbia National Guard. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for heroism in action in France. Jones tended to the wounded while under machine gun fire. Buckley said Jones was promoted to captain; she quoted an Army citation: "While dressing a wounded runner, a machine-gun bullet passed between his arms and his chest and a man was killed within a few yards of him." He returned to Washington, D.C. after the war, worked as a surgeon, and became president of an American Legion post.

Dr. Scott served with the First Battalion of the 350th Field Artillery. He treated such serious problems as influenza, pneumonia, lice, trench foot, trench fever, and venereal disease. After the war, he was a charter member and historian of the American Legion in Philadelphia. During the 1930s, he was an active member of the United War Veterans Organization of Philadelphia County, which helped local veterans with job opportunities, health care, and disability pensions.

"Many of these men became leaders in their communities, and so we had to tell their stories," Buckley said.

"It was incredible to hear about the lives of several of the 104 African-American doctors who served in the 92nd and 93rd Divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces, the only black combat troops to serve in France during World War I," said Andrea Schierkolk, NMHM public programs manager. "Fisher and Buckley's research is a testament to these unsung heroes who served this country and went on to serve their communities."

NMHM's Medical Museum Science Cafes are a regular series of informal talks that connect the mission of the Department of Defense museum with the public. NMHM was founded as the Army Medical Museum in 1862 and moved to its current location in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2012. NMHM is an element of the Defense Health Agency. For information on upcoming events, call 301-319-3303 or visit www.medicalmuseum.mil.