The College of Physicians and Surgeons

The College of Physicians and Surgeons was an independent medical school associated with Columbia throughout the 19th century. By the 1890s, the two institutions had fully merged. Many early P&S faculty were slaveowners, and the college became a flashpoint for African American claims to racial equality several times throughout the 19th century.

John Augustine Smith

John Augustine Smith

John Augustine Smith was the President of the College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1831 to 1843. The son of a prominent Virginia family, Smith publicly lectured on what he believed to be the inherent differences between races, and compared the facial structure of black people to monkeys.

Despite his racist beliefs, Smith opposed slavery, concluding in the same address mentioned above that such differences “can never justify any people in keeping them in slavery.” He was active in the colonization movement, desiring to remove black people from the American body politic completely and avoid what he thought would inevitably lead to genocide.

At Columbia, Smith taught surgery, anatomy, and physiology. He also later edited the New York Medical and Physical Journal, an early medical academic publication.

Daniel Hosack and Samuel Bard

Samuel Bard

Daniel Hosack and Samuel Bard were prominent medical practitioners, professors at Columbia, and founders of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Both were significant figures in the American Enlightenment, and both owned slaves.

Bard was a driving force behind the creation of the New York hospital in 1770 (and then again later, in 1791), as well as the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which had long been his ambition. As a teacher at Columbia, he was known for his teaching style, which coupled lectures with bedside demonstrations. He wrote on medical subjects such as diphtheria, yellow fever, and obstetrics, as well as medical ethics – he authored the nation’s first textbook on the subject – and was what might be described as an early public health advocate.

David Hosack

Hosack, meanwhile, was a botanist as well as a doctor, and was a member of the American Philosophical Society as well as the Royal Society of London. Hosack attempted to found numerous medical colleges and hospitals in the United States – P&S was one of his successes; Bellevue was another. A prominent man in his time, Hosack is now best remembered as the physician who treated Alexander Hamilton after his duel with Aaron Burr.

Hosack was also active in the temperance movement, and gave a speech in 1850 blaming tropical ailments on the excess consumption of liquor rather than water. He also stated his belief that people living in hot climates made excessive use of condiments and alcohol alike.

Samuel Clossy

Samuel Clossy, appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy in 1764, worked with several other faculty members to establish a medical school at King’s College. Once their request was approved by the governors of the college, Clossy assumed the role of Professor of Anatomy. He conducted some of the first anatomy classes and dissections at King’s College. Though Clossy departed for Europe during the American Revolution, he worked closely with other King’s College faculty, including Samuel Bard, to professionalize the study of medicine in the United States.

Clossy gave the first anatomy lectures at King’s College in 1763, soon after arriving in New York from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He dissected bodies of deceased slaves during his lectures. While the New York City press accused Clossy of grave robbing, his dissections garnered the admiration of his medical colleagues and earned him a permanent appointment at King’s College. Clossy’s actions set a precedent for justifying the stealing and desecration of bodies, especially those of African Americans, in the name of anatomical study. Grave robbing became a common practice among Columbia’s early medical students, repeatedly bringing the medical profession into conflict with members of the public. Alexander Hamilton attended Clossy’s lectures when he matriculated at King’s College prior to the Revolution.

The Expelled: John Brown and James Parker Barnett

John Brown – of no relation to the John Brown of Harper's Ferry – was an African American man who attended P&S in the 1830s at the encouragement of the American Colonization Society and several forward-thinking mentors. Despite completing all of the credits required to stand for exams, then-P&S President John Augustine Smith blocked his progress, demanding that he pledge to restrict his practice to Liberia. Brown declined, and so was not allowed to graduate. He later became an educator, and was widely respected in the free African American community, within which he was known as "The Doctor."

James Parker Barnett attended P&S for two years in the late 1840s before being summarily expelled when it was discovered that he was of African descent. What followed was a long legal battle that eventually upheld Barnett's expulsion, though he would later go on to graduate from Dartmouth's medical college in 1854.

The Graduates: Washington Walter Davis and David McDonogh

Washington Walter Davis was an African American student at P&S associated with the American Colonization Society. At the Society's urging (and through their coin), he was allowed to attend lectures at P&S shortly after John Brown was forced out. Davis took classes for several years; he was never officially admitted, and ultimately finished his medical education by studying with several P&S doctors outside of the formal auspices of the school. Davis moved to Liberia at the Colonization Society's behest, and was employed there by the Society as a physician. 

David McDonogh's situation was somewhat different. A slave whose owner was firmly dedicated to the idea of colonization, McDonogh was selected from among his compatriots to be trained as a missionary. Through some rather deft maneuvering, McDonogh was able to shift his course of study to medicine. In Professor John Kearny Rodgers at P&S, McDonogh found a sympathetic teacher; through Rodgers's influence, McDonogh was allowed to audit classes at P&S, so long as he remained entirely off the record. He finished his studies there in 1847, and subsequently practiced medicine. Throughout the remainder of his long career, McDonogh maintained that he had a medical degree from P&S. 

"Bard, Samuel". 2009. In Marquis Who Was Who in America 1607-1984, MarquisWho'sWho. New Providence: Marquis Who's Who LLC.

Anderson, Marynita. 2014. "Bard, Samuel (1742-1821)". In The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment. London: Bloomsbury.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, (New York: Penguin, 2004), 52.

Cowen, David L. Isis 57, no. 1 (1966): 133-34.

"DOCTOR HOSACK'S ADDRESS." Journal of Health.Conducted by an Association of Physicians.(1829-1833) 2, no. 1 (Sep 08, 1830): 12.

"Smith, John Augustine". 2009. In Marquis Who Was Who in America 1607-1984, MarquisWho'sWho. New Providence: Marquis Who's Who LLC.

Russell W. Irvine, “Pride and Prejudice,” Journal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, 20 (Winter 2000)