Office of Institutional Advancement

Who Was First?

Previously unknown African-American graduates of Jefferson's medical college

Algernon Brashear Jackson, JMC 1901

Algernon Brashear Jackson

The story of African-American physicians begins in 18th century Philadelphia with James Derham, who is recognized as the first black allopathic medical doctor. The first medical school in the U.S. to admit an African American was Rush Medical College in Chicago, which awarded David J. Peck his degree in 1847. That same year, Peck came to the Philadelphia to set up his practice.

In the nineteenth century, Jefferson had a reputation for the most progressive and highest standard in medical education; however, we can’t say the same for its admissions policies. In fact, Jefferson had no written admissions policy at all regarding race or gender. The faculty regularly rejected applicants of color until a brief period in the first decade of the 20th century when a modest percentage of African Americans were admitted.

That first generation of “Old Jeff ” African-American graduates laid down foundations and created original strategies to overcome barriers to not only succeed, but to excel, as they served their neglected community.

Long-celebrated as Jefferson’s first African-American graduate, Algernon Brashear Jackson, JMC 1901, remains a highly accomplished and remarkable product of his alma mater. Among his many achievements, Jackson was identified in 1903 as “the only negro physician in the U.S.” to serve as assistant surgeon in an all-white hospital, at the Philadelphia Polyclinic. He was co-founder of the Mercy Douglass Hospital, founder of the nation’s first African American Greek letter fraternity Sigma Pi Phi (aka the Boulé), and the first African American to be elected to the American College of Physicians in 1917. One hundred years later, Jackson’s star quality is undiminished.

But ongoing research in our University Archives and Special Collections – where information on over 30,000 graduates and faculty is collected and organized –  has revealed some pre-Jackson surprises.

We have no record to know if Jefferson faculty and the Board of Trustees in the 1800s knew that the following students were African American or if they “passed,” as there was no applicant requirement to identify one’s race.

James Lewis Jamison, JMC 1882

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For 49 years James Lewis Jamison practiced medicine in his hometown of Wrightsville, Pa. located on the Susquehanna River. He had Jefferson associations early in his training. He was born in 1855 and from the age of 14 to 17 he lived in Philadelphia under the employ of Dr. Frank H. Getchell, JMC 1871, who would become a prominent obstetrician and author. 

Jamison attended the prep school run at Lincoln University (America’s second black university) and continued his studies there until he attained an A.B. in 1879. He briefly apprenticed under Dr. D. Alfred Stubbs, JMC 1874, in Chester County, Pa., until his enrollment at Jefferson, where he graduated in 1882. At the time Jefferson, like most medical schools, had a standard two-year program. But Jamison chose to take the newly-created optional third year post-graduate course. He submitted a graduate thesis entitled, “Report of Dr. Levis’s Surgical Clinics at the Pennsylvania Hospital.” Commencement ceremonies were held at the American Academy of Music on Broad Street in Philadelphia on March 30, 1882 for 247 graduates.

In 1884, Jamison married Francenia Baldwin, whom he met in Chester County. She joined him in Wrightsville where he quickly established “a large practice.” He served as the civic school director and later as city health director. Our alumni association identity card states he died in 1930 at the age of 74.

Cornelius Thaddeus Shaffer, JMC 1888

Cornelius Thaddeus Shaffer

Photo courtesy Mother Bethel AME

Like many educated Victorian-era gentlemen, Cornelius Thaddeus Shaffer seems to have attained a medical degree primarily for its prestige and never expected to practice or teach medicine. Prior to enrolling at Jefferson he had committed himself to a ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1870.

Born in Troy, Ohio on January 3, 1847, he attended public schools and at the age of 17 enlisted in the Federal infantry during the US Civil War as a non-commissioned combatant in the medical department. After his muster out he continued his education at Berea College in Kentucky and ultimately matriculated at Jefferson Medical College in 1886. A quick scan of his fellow med students at Jeff shows that he was in a richly diverse environment that included four Brazilians, two Russians, a Nicaraguan, a Bavarian, a Cuban, a Spaniard, a Mexican and a Chinese student – possibly the first Chinese American to receive an MD in the US! The same year he received his medical degree (1888), he received his first (of two) Doctor of Divinity degree from Allen University in Columbia, SC.

As an AME official, Shaffer served in churches in Ohio, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Like many Methodists, he was an active Mason and served the Grand Lodge as an international delegate of the Good Templars of the World at the 1879 meeting in England. He is widely recognized for planning, purchasing the land and building the “Mother” Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia in 1889-91. By the turn of the century he was made a Bishop and in 1902 traveled to Africa, where he established the first AME school building on the continent.

In 1912, Shaffer was assigned to the Fourth Episcopal District, comprising Ontario, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky. He died in Lansing, Michigan in 1919. His son Carl Wilberforce Shaffer was also a physician who obtained his MD from the medical college at the University of Virginia in 1915.

Were there other or earlier African American graduates or matriculates at Jefferson? Perhaps time will tell.