Kentucky’s African American Men and Women of Medicine

February is National African American History Month, which honors the sedulous contributions of African Americans across the nation and serves as a reminder of their struggles in seeking equality and freedom. We celebrate the hardworking men and women who fought tirelessly to help others in need in Kentucky. These are just a few of the men and women of medicine that will always remain honored for their contributions.

Check out our page about Red Cross Hospital, Kentucky’s first hospital to exclusively care for African American patients.

You can also check out Louisville National College of Medicine, one of Kentucky’s first medical schools that exclusively served African American men and women.

There are lonely hearts to cherish,
There are weary souls who perish,
While the days are going by;
If a smile we can renew,
As our journey we pursue,—
O, the good we all may do,
While the days are going by.

All the loving links that bind us,
One by one we leave behind us,
While the days are going by:
But the seeds of good we sow,
Both in shade and shine will grow,
And will keep our hearts aglow,
While the days are going by.

-George Cooper

Dr. Mary Ellen Britton was Lexington, Kentucky’s first female African American physician. Dr. Britton earned a degree from Berea College and then earned her medical degree in Michigan where she returned back home to Lexington and practiced medicine. Dr. Britton was an activist as well as a schoolteacher in addition to being a physician. Dr. Britton was one of the founders of the Colored Orphan Industrial Home. Dr. Britton’s activism centered around segregation laws of the time and she fought vehemently to see these unnecessary laws overturned. Dr. Britton was a talented writer and orator and she managed to touch the hearts of many people in Kentucky with her powerful speeches.

Thomas T. Wendell was born in 1877 in Nashville, Tennessee to Alfred and Clare Wendell. In the post-Civil War south, Wendell attended college at Meharry College in Nashville, Tennessee earning a degree in pharmacy followed by a degree in medicine. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Wendell moved to Lexington, Kentucky where he became Eastern State Hospital’s first African American physician and soon became noted as a pioneer in treating Kentucky’s mentally ill. Dr. Wendell spent around two decades at Eastern State Hospital (Lexington, Kentucky) where he tirelessly worked to improve the treatment of Kentucky’s African American patients. In 1922, Dr. Wendell’s civic efforts resulted in the building of Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School (Lexington, Kentucky). In early 1953, a $1,250,000 building was completed at Eastern State Hospital and was named in honor of Dr. Thomas T. Wendell. Kentucky State Senator R. P. Moloney, during the dedication of the building in honor of Dr. Wendell, was quoted as saying, “Never before has any building at a state institution been named for a living man, to my knowledge.” In October of 1953, Dr. Thomas T. Wendell died, leaving behind a legacy that was unrivaled in many ways. He served the people of Kentucky for more than five decades. Kentucky remains proud of Dr. Thomas T. Wendell; civic leader, physician, and humanitarian.

Dr. Grace M. James, a trained pediatrician, was the first black staff member of the “old” University Hospital and the first black woman to join the University of Louisville School of Medicine faculty. Dr. James served as an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics. Additionally, Dr. James was the first black woman to be a member of the Jefferson County Medical Society. Dr. James practiced for 37 years seeing more than 100 patients a week; she later championed preventing teen pregnancy and health care delivery to Louisville’s poorest neighborhoods. Dr. James made her mark on the Kentucky medical community and for the citizens of Louisville. Like Dr. Thomas T. Wendell and the others profiled on this page, Dr. James was a humanitarian that fought in the face of adversity for most of her life and career. For her contributions to Kentucky, we are grateful for her service.

Dr. A. D. Kelly, a native of Moore County, North Carolina, was born in 1860. He remained in public school there until 1880 when he moved to Greensboro, North Carolina and began attending Bennett College. After a year, however, Mr. Kelly ran out of money and had to move north to obtain work to pay for his tuition. He continued this pattern until 1892 when he received his diploma from Bennett College. Like many before him, Mr. Kelly began studying medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. After completing a total of four years of the study of medicine, Mr. Kelly graduated in 1896. The now, Dr. Kelly, eventually found his way to Covington, Kentucky where he began practicing medicine in the city.

Doctors Henry and Sarah H. Fitzbutler

Henry Fitzbutler was born in 1842 in Virginia to his enslaved father and a mother who was an indentured servant from Great Britain. In the antebellum south, Henry’s parents were worried of his future and so they made the trek to Canada via the Underground Railroad. It was then that Henry received the education he needed to fulfill his dream of becoming a physician. Henry attended college in Michigan and was the first African American to graduate from the Medical College in Detroit, Michigan. In the mid-1860s, Henry married his wife, Sarah, and they would eventually moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Henry Fitzbutler helped to found the Louisville National Medical College which trained “Negro” physicians in Louisville, Kentucky. Additionally, his wife Sarah became the first African American female to receive a Doctor of Medicine in the state of Kentucky. She was a graduate of the Louisville National Medical College. Henry was also the first African American physician in the state of Kentucky.

Henry soon became a civil rights activist, including lobbying the Kentucky legislature to approve the Louisville National Medical College. The College operated from 1888 until its closure in 1912 and graduated a total of 175 African American physicians. In 1894, the College created its own hospital, Louisville Hospital, in two houses neighboring the College of Medicine. Despite its limited fiscal resources and access to a large teaching hospital, the College received good marks in the Flexner Report. Ironically, one of the reasons the College had to close was due to a curricular change from the AMA in response to the Flexner Report. In addition to being a physician and civil rights activist, Dr. Fitzbutler helped to publish two newspapers in Louisville. Dr. Fitzbutler died at the age of 59 in 1901 from bronchitis. His wife, Sarah, taught nurses at the College and was noted as spending her later years helping treat the indigent in Louisville. She died in 1922 in Chicago. Dr. Henry Fitzbutler managed to accomplish many “firsts” during his short life; both in the state of Kentucky and throughout other areas of the nation.

Miss Mary Eliza Merritt was the first African American nurse in the state of Kentucky. Miss Merritt, a native of Berea, Kentucky, attended Berea College until 1903 when the “Day Law” resulted in in post-secondary institutions refusing to admit African American students. She went on to attend nursing training at the Freedmen’s Hospitals in Washington, D.C. and became a nurse in 1906. Miss Merritt did private nursing, worked at Central State Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, and would go on to become the nursing superintendent of the Red Cross Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky where she retired. She received the Mary Mahoney Medal for distinguished service, awarded by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The Merritt Building at Central State Hospital was named in honor of Miss Merritt. Additionally, she was awarded a merit certificate by President Woodrow Wilson for her extensive service in the Red Cross during the First World War.

Dr. Reginald Claypool Neblett was the first African American physician to be admitted to the Daviess County, Kentucky Medical Society. Until the 1950s, Dr. Neblett was the only African American Physician in Daviess County despite there being an African American population in that area in the thousands. Dr. Neblett completed his B.S. degree from Tennessee A&I State College and went on to complete his medical degree at Meharry Medical College. Dr. Neblett served as an intern at Providence Hospital in Baltimore, MD and came to Owensboro in 1929. Dr. Neblett fought tirelessly for various Kentucky county medical societies to include African American physicians.

Dr. Maurice F. Rabb was the first African American to train at General Hospital, Louisville, Kentucky, and became Jefferson County Medical Society’s first African American member. Dr. Rabb attended the Meharry Medical School and went on to intern at Kansas City General Hospital. Dr. Rabb was also the first African American physician in Louisville to train in anesthesia. In the 1950s, Dr. Rabb became the first African American physician named to the staff at St. Joseph Infirmary. That meant that he was the first African American physician to be accepted to the staff of a private hospital, excluding the Red Cross Hospital in Louisville, in the state of Kentucky.

Dr. Orville Ballard, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, was born in 1900. He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. where he earned his medical degree in 1923. Dr. Ballard went on to intern at the Kansas City Hospital and traveled back to Louisville where he began his medical practice. A few short years later in 1928, Dr. Ballard gave up his private practice and became a full time resident physician at Waverly Hills Sanatorium. In 1943, Dr. Ballard won the first annual award for distinguished public service by alumni at Howard University.

Dr. William Moses attended Meharry Medical College where he received his medical degree. In 1955, Dr. Moses completed his surgical residency and volunteered at an impoverished, single-floor hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Dr. Moses inspired generations of young Kentucky men and women to achieve their dreams and attend medical school.

Dr. W. T. Dinwiddie, a native of Kentucky, was born in Danville on May 2, 1865. Dr. Dinwiddie attended public school in Danville until the age of 13 and, according to reports, showed a great love for books. Dr. Dinwiddie left school at the age of 13 and began working with his father as a carpenter who was also a skilled mechanic. He continued this work until the age of 17 when his father died. Dr. Dinwiddie traveled south to Knoxville, Tennessee and attended Knoxville College. After two years at the college, he returned to Danville, Kentucky and became a master mechanic and was among the first wood workmen in Danville and Lexington. In the fall of 1893, Dinwiddie entered Meharry Medical College and began studying dentistry and in 1896 he graduated with honors. Upon graduating from Meharry, Dr. Dinwiddie opened an office with Drs. Hunter and Robinson. Shortly after, he accepted a professorship at Meharry Medical and Dental College and became the chair of Prosthetic Dentistry. After one year, however, Dr. Dinwiddie became homesick and returned to his former practice in Lexington, Kentucky.

William Henry Ballard, a native of Kentucky, was born in Franklin County on October 21, 1862. He was under the guidance of a private tutor until the public schools opened in 1873. He progressed quite rapidly and, after seven years of education, he graduated from Louisville High School. Soon after, Mr. Ballard attended a science and languages course at Roger Williams University. While at the University, Mr. Ballard began teaching and, eventually, would become principal of schools in Graves County, Kentucky. In 1890, Mr. Ballard began attending Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois to pursue the study of pharmacy and graduated, with honors, in 1892. In 1893, Dr. Ballard opened the first pharmacy owned and controlled by Negroes in the history of Kentucky; Ballard & Nelson. Shortly after, Dr. Ballard branched off and continued with his own pharmacy.

Born in 1859 in Virginia before the Civil War, John E. Hunter would go on to become the first African American physician/surgeon to perform a major operation in Lexington at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Dr. Hunter was one of 14 children who, according to his son, Dr. Bush Alexander Hunter, were all “farmed” out to different families. The elder Dr. Hunter found his way with a family in Ohio, a banker, and his family in nearby Washington Courthouse. Dr. Hunter would attend university, being admitted to the Western Reserve University Medical School where he was only the third African American to graduate from the school. One of his medical school professors urged Dr. Hunter to find his way to Lexington, Kentucky to practice medicine. And so, he did. Dr. Hunter came to the city of Lexington in 1889 at a time when African American physicians and surgeons were not permitted to affiliate with or practice in any of the large hospitals. Still, that did not deter Dr. Hunter. He would go on to start a private practice where he served patients of all races in Lexington.

Dr. Hunter met and married Mamie Bush and they would go on to have several children. His son, Bush Alexander would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a physician as well. The elder Dr. Hunt was a charter member of the National Medical Association and, according to literature, it was the “Negro equivalent to the American Medical Association,” and served as its fourth president. Dr. Hunt was also one of the organizers of the Tuskegee Clinic in Tuskegee, Alabama, and helped organize the Florida A. and M. College Clinical Association in Tallahassee, Florida. In an interview in the 1950s, Dr. Hunter spoke fondly of Sr. Euphrasia at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “Sister Euphrasia was always very good to me, she welcomed me when I first came here and helped me professionally. Sister Euphrasia said I performed thousands of operations here–‘now be sure to say that’s what Sister Euphrasia said.'” Dr. Hunter assisted Dr. Matt Scott in performing one of the country’s first successful bowel surgeries.

The younger Dr. Hunter, Bush Alexander, kept his father’s faith and tenacity in helping serve patients in Lexington. He went to prep school at Oberlin Academy and was actively involved in the school’s renowned music program. He attended Howard University where he received his medical degree. He completed an internship at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington. In the 1920s he joined his father’s private practice; the younger Dr. Hunter noted that he didn’t care for surgery, that was his father’s niche, he was more of a diagnostician, specializing in internal medicine. Dr. Bush Alexander Hunter spent two decades at Lexington’s Public Health Medical Center. Harkening back to his early days of practicing medicine he would say, “back then, doctors couldn’t get by on a ‘wing and a prayer, they only had a prayer–there wasn’t any wing.'” Before his father died the pair established the Hunter Foundation and experimented with a novel insurance program, the Hunter Model, where patients could pay annual subscription fees to receive medical care.

Dr. John E. Hunter and Dr. Bush Alexander Hunter provided nearly 120 years of combined service to Lexington and Kentucky.

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. Johnson, W. D, and Daniel Murray Collection. Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky. Lexington, Ky, 1897. 

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