Greetings, internet aficionados of medical history. Today, we are happy to welcome another guest author to the MütterEDU blog. Mütter Museum docent Izza Choudhry is here to offer a profile of a notable Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia: Nathan Francis Mossell. Dr. Mossell was an accomplished physician and civil rights advocate whose portrait appears outside Ashhurst Hall on the second floor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Izza is here to offer insights into his life.
The floor is yours, Izza!
Nathan Francis Mossell (1856-1946) was the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He established the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, which was the first African American hospital in Philadelphia. In addition to being the first African American member of the Philadelphia County Medical Society, Mossell was the co-founder of the Philadelphia Academy of Medicine and Allied Sciences, an organization for African Americans in medicine, and the National Medical Association.
Nathan Francis Mossell was born on July 27, 1856, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Both of Mossell’s parents, Eliza Bowers and Aaron Albert Mossell, were children of freed slaves. Growing up hearing stories of slavery truly impacted Mossell’s perception of life. In his autobiography, he stated that his mother’s stories of the unjust discrimination that their family faced motivated him to succeed, “Mother inspired us toward high aspirations by stories of how our grandparents overcame obstacles.”
One of the first memories Mossell describes in his autobiography is how many times his mother would tell the story of how her father was freed as as young man. His grandfather was deemed useless by his master because of how viciously he resisted his enslavement. Mossell’s grandfather told his master that he would not work for him because he did not believe slavery was justifiable. Mossell’s grandfather’s persistent resistance towards his master caused his master to give up any attempts of controlling him, and he simply freed him. After gaining his freedom, he settled down in Baltimore, Maryland.
Mossell’s paternal grandfather, initially transported to the United States from the West African Coast, bought his and his wife’s freedom from his master. They settled in Baltimore, where Mossell’s father was born.
When Mossell’s mother was a child, she and her family, along with many other free African Americans, were deported from Baltimore to Trinidad. After they returned to Baltimore, she met Mossell’s father. Mossell’s father worked as a brickmaker, which helped him earn enough money to buy a house. After the birth of their third child, the couple decided to move to Canada, since free African Americans were prohibited from receiving an education in Maryland, and they wanted to provide their children with better opportunities.
During the Civil War, Mossell and his family moved to Lockport, New York, where Mossell spent the remainder of his childhood. In Lockport, Mossell’s father maintained his brickmaking business. At the time, Mossell and his five siblings were the only African American children attending public schools in Lockport.
In the late 1860s, brickyard revenues began to decline, and the Mossells were only able to send their oldest son to college. Mossell had worked at the brickyard since he was nine years old and only attended school sporadically. At fourteen years old, after the death of his second-oldest brother, he started working at the brickyard full-time in order to help his father.
When Mossell was fifteen, his family was finally able to fund his education. In 1871, he enrolled in Lincoln University’s high school preparatory program, where he completed the four-year curriculum in only three years. In 1879, he graduated from Lincoln University with a Bachelor of Arts degree with second honors in his graduating class. He was also awarded the Bradley Medal in natural science.
After completing his undergraduate studies, Mossell enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where became the the most prominent of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School’s first African American students, taking second honors in his graduating class.
During his medical career, Mossell noticed the continuing prevalence of racism and discrimination towards African Americans, especially the prejudice in most hospitals towards African American medical graduates. Due to this, Mossell completed an internship at St. Thomas and Queens College hospitals in London, England. He worked at St. Thomas Hospital for five years before returning to Philadelphia.
After his return to the United States, Mossell became the first African American physician elected to the Philadelphia County Medical Society. For over a decade, he practiced in predominantly white Philadelphia hospitals. In 1895 he established the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, the second African American hospital in the United States, to both provide care for the African American community in Philadelphia and to provide young African American physicians and nurses with the opportunity to gain experience working in hospitals. There, he worked as the chief of staff and medical director, until his retirement in 1933. He continued to privately practice medicine until his death in 1946.
In addition to a physician, Mossell was a strong political activist, especially for civil rights. During the 1880s and 1890s, Mossell was one of the first to encourage the hiring of African American professors at Lincoln University. He also worked with state representative Arthur Faucett to pass a bill banning the exclusion of African Americans from university housing at the University of Pennsylvania. Mossell was a founding member of the Niagara Movement, an organization established by W.E.B. du Bois in 1905 to publicly oppose the policies of Booker T. Washington. In 1910, Mossell became a founding member of the Philadelphia’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Two years after Mossell’s death, Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital merged with Mercy Hospital, another African American hospital, to create Mercy Douglass Hospital. This facility continued to care for the African American community until its closure in 1973.
Thanks, Izza, for your insights into Dr. Mossell. If you are interested in learning more from our dedicated docents and volunteers, be sure to check out former docent Sarah Henry’s examination of eye color or a recent article from one of our Karabots Junior Fellows on NBA star Kyrie Irving’s knee injury. See you next time!