• America's First African-American Eye Specialist: David K. McDonogh, MD

    In 1838 David K. McDonogh, a 19-year-old slave, arrived at Lafayette College in Easton, Penn., with a fellow slave, Washington McDonogh. The two men had been sent to the college by their owner, John McDonogh, an iconoclast New Orleans plantation owner and mercantilist.

    Though one of the wealthiest men in the south, John McDonogh had initiated a secret plan to free his slaves. Known as the McDonogh Experiment, his scheme required that a slave work an extra day a week for 10-15 years. But the experiment came with a non-negotiable caveat. Under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, the men and women he eventually freed had to emigrate to Liberia.

    But John McDonogh was not content to free all his slaves to an unchartered destiny in the nascent Republic of Liberia. Instead, he planned to educate several of the brightest men and women to serve as stewards of the black democracy, still in its infancy.

    David and Washington, who both elected to take their master’s surname, benefitted from John McDonogh’s extended experiment. John McDonogh engaged Pennsylvania Senator Walter Lowrie (secretary of the Senate and, in 1821, a strong voice opposing slavery in the soon-to-be-minted state of Missouri) to act as David’s and Washington’s legal guardian while they attended Lafayette College.

    David faced obstacles from the moment he arrived on campus. (Washington left for Liberia before completing his studies). Although he was legally free as long as he remained in the north, David was tainted by the stigma of his color and status as a recent slave and was forced to take classes and meals separately from the other students.  

    David bridled under the strict constraints imposed by the college president and was not loath to complain openly about his treatment. But he knew that if John McDonogh wished, he had the power to bring David back to New Orleans in chains; in one powerful letter, John McDonogh wrote Walter Lowrie expressing just that threat.

    By his junior year, David began to lobby for an opportunity to study medicine as part of his curriculum. His persistence paid off and eventually John McDonogh gave grudging approval for David to apprentice himself to a local Easton physician. 

    As graduation loomed, David proclaimed that he would not honor his contract with John to emigrate until he completed a medical education. Frustrated and fully aware of David’s implacable spirit, John realized he had lost the battle of wills and washed his hands of David, leaving him rudderless and without funds after graduation. Adding to his anxiety, Sen. Lowrie informed David that no credible medical institution would admit him, even with his academic record and apprenticeship to a local physician.

    David expressed his anger and despair in this passage he wrote to John McDonogh and Sen. Lowrie:

    “...[T]he refusal on the part of the medical faculties, and the worse than slavish treatment which I have suffered here, and from those, too, who are looked upon by their kind as saints on Earth, have given me the strongest reasons to distrust the fidelity of the white man. Therefore sir — with due deference to your honor, I have resolved to cover my sable brow with a cloud of despair and never more to look up to the white man, whatever may be his profession or condition in society, as a true friend. These concluding remarks are general and consequently liable to honorable exceptions.”

    Perhaps the “honorable exceptions” that David alluded to materialized in the guise of two sympathetic individuals. Sen. Lowrie apparently intervened on David’s behalf and made contact with an eminent New York physician and the co-founder of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, John Kearney Rodgers.

    Rodgers championed David’s cause and mentored him through his medical studies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (later Columbia University Medical School) where he taught. Rodgers did so despite the objections of the medical college's president, who refused to enroll David as a bona fide matriculant and at graduation refused to award him a diploma.

    Nonetheless, Rodgers provided Dr. McDonogh with a staff position at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. Remarkably, Dr. McDonogh’s peers embraced him as a bona fide colleague; by all accounts, he was considered a respected physician. Throughout his career, Dr. McDonogh held out that he was a graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, a claim the school never challenged. When John Kearney Rodgers died in 1850 Dr. McDonogh took Kearney as his middle name, in honor of his mentor.

    Dr. McDonogh began a practice on Sullivan Street in Manhattan's Village neighborhood. In league with Frederick Douglass, he became active in the abolitionist movement and a champion of workers’ rights.

    Dr. McDonogh married Elizabeth Van Wagoner; of their three children, only one survived into adulthood. Our research has identified one surviving member of David’s family who is presently being introduced to her remarkable great, great, great grandfather.

    Dr. McDonogh died in 1893 at the age of 72. As a testament to his legacy --- appreciated by both black and white members of society --- the McDonough (sic) Memorial Hospital opened on West 41st Street in 1898. David attended the infirmary for more than 11 years, making him the first African-American eye specialist. Additionally, as far as we know David is the only American slave to have gained a professional medical education.

    For more stories from Scope, download the fall 2016 issue [PDF].


    1. David McDonogh letter to John McDonogh and Walter Lowrie 1844
    2. The Frederick Douglass Paper 1851