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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

From the Underground Railroad to Santo Domingo: The Doctor’s Journey of Sarah Loguen Fraser

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States; within half a century 7,000 American women had followed her example. Twelve years prior to that, in 1837, James McCune Smith became the first black American male to earn such a degree (though he had to travel to the University of Glasgow to do so), and by 1920 there were nearly 4,000 practising black physicians in the United States. Yet while the turn of the twentieth century saw both women and black persons gradually but definitively entering the medical profession, the intersection of those two groups, comprised of black women physicians, lagged far behind the trends of its two constituent classes, with only sixty-five registered practitioners by the 1920s.


Black women who wanted to pursue a medical career had to face a persistent dual prejudice – denigrated for their gender and dismissed for their race – lacking institutions to help them along in their very particular life’s course; prospective black women medical students required either unusually favourable social positions or unusually deep reserves of resolve to see their way through the early stages of their medical training. Eliza Anna Grier (?–1902), for example, was a former slave who took seven years to complete her medical courses at Fisk University because for every year she studied she had to take a year off to work to earn enough money for the next year of education. Grier’s iron will to be educated was undeniably phenomenal, but most black women who earned degrees in the late nineteenth century did so because they came from relatively prosperous and prominent families who had the social connections and financial wherewithal to see them through their university years.


There are dozens of these stories to be told, and everybody has a different vote for which should be held up as the gold standard archetype, but few stories contain as many diverse elements of late nineteenth-century American culture as that of Sarah Loguen Fraser (1850–1933). Born in the year of the Compromise of 1850 which included the Fugitive Slave Act that enflamed abolitionist sentiment in the North and brought the nation one step closer to Civil War, Loguen (referred to as Logan in some sources) would be directly involved with abolitionist causes for the full span of her childhood. Her father, Reverend Jermain Loguen, was a key member of the Underground Railroad, and his Syracuse home was a major hub of its operations.



Sarah’s youth was filled with the regular arrival of new individuals desperately seeking freedom, their speech struggling to convey the inhumanity of the world they had escaped. Over 1,500 people owed their freedom in part to Reverend Loguen, and so prominent was his part in the aid of runaway slaves that he himself had to flee to Canada for some time to avoid arrest on account of his role in the Jerry Rescue of 1851, which publicly rescued a fugitive slave who had been arrested under the provisions of the 1850 Act.


Raised in a household that counted Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith as particular friends, and Harriet Tubman as a close acquaintance, and by a mother who had graduated from the Oneida Institute and who emphasised to all her eight children the importance of working for the benefit of humanity, Sarah had everything that one could hope for in terms of ready-to-hand mentoring and inspiration. Both her parents were keenly aware of the value of education (they were central figures in establishing a series of schools in Syracuse to further black education), and ensured that she began attending school at the age of 5 and learning German, the language in which the most modern advances in chemical and medical knowledge were being promulgated in the late nineteenth century.


Loguen’s early years were filled with learning, but also loss. An older sister died when she was 5, followed by her mother when she was 17, and then her father when she was 22. Up to that point, her life had been defined by service in her father’s cause, particularly after the death of her mother and the marriage of her sister left her as the primary household organiser for a series of years. In 1873, however, she was at a railroad station when she saw a boy struck by a large farm wagon and crushed. She was filled with the hopelessness of watching a young life ebb away while she could do nothing to aid or soothe him. She resolved that: ‘I will never see a human being in need and not be able to help.’


She spoke with a friend of the family, Dr Michael Benedict, a military doctor who had served in the Civil War, and who happened to board her train sometime after her witnessing of the accident. He had long championed women’s medical education, and after ascertaining the depth of Loguen’s commitment, agreed to tutor her in what she would need to enter a medical programme. She was admitted to Syracuse University’s newly launched medical school (where Benedict was a faculty member) in 1873 and had graduated by 1876, becoming the fourth black woman in the United States to obtain a medical degree (behind Rebecca Lee (1864), Rebecca Cole (1867), and Susan Steward (1870)).



On the strength of a recommendation from the always encouraging Dr Benedict, Loguen was offered an internship at the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she came immediately into conflict with a Dr Logue whose grandfather had owned Loguen’s grandmother and father, and was in fact her father’s father. Dr Logue did not much take to working with somebody whose very existence was a sign of her own family’s dark past, and she left the hospital rather than face up to the weight of that inheritance. Loguen, however, stayed on and undertook the important work of venturing into the city’s tenements and ministering to their various medical needs.


In 1878, she was invited to fill a six-month absence at the already legendary New England Hospital for Women and Children founded in Boston in 1862 by Marie Zakrzewska. There were no race barriers at the New England Hospital, which not only took on promising doctors like Loguen, but also established a nursing school which was the first in the nation to admit and graduate black nursing students.


Her time in Philadelphia and Boston gave Loguen the experience she needed to establish her own practice, which she did in Washington DC in 1879, building up a substantial client base on the strength of her skills and her family’s good name, putting in long hours in the face of a plethora of diseases, one of which, malaria, she contracted in 1881. While recovering from this illness, she received a proposal of marriage from a wealthy pharmacist and plantation owner from Santo Domingo, Charles Fraser, who Loguen knew as a friend of Frederick Douglass’s son. Douglass vouched for his character, and the prospect of a life of financial independence in a new setting with a man who would encourage her medical career was certainly enticing, and in 1882 the couple married.


Loguen relocated to Puerto Plata in Santo Domingo, where Fraser’s flourishing businesses allowed her the social status and financial resources to start her practice in a land that had never known a female physician before. The fourth black woman MD in America, she was the first woman physician ever to practise in Santo Domingo, and upon announcing her services, she was inundated with clients seeking an alternative to the two lone other doctors serving in Puerto Plata. She had her first and only child in 1883, to whom we are indebted for most of our knowledge of Loguen’s career, and in 1884 moved to a new house that had custom-built rooms for her flourishing practice.

For a beautiful decade, Loguen had all the satisfying work and respect that she could desire. Then, in 1894, Charles Fraser died from a stroke, and the maintenance of his plantation and running of his pharmacy fell suddenly on the shoulders of someone either too deep in grieving or too uninspired by the demands of business to carry either on. She sold the plantation in 1895, the pharmacy in 1897, and in 1901 moved back to Syracuse while Santo Domingo slipped into governmental chaos.



For a number of years, she wandered between different family members, caring for each in turn as they succumbed to disease and old age, until in 1908 she decided to become a resident physician at an industrial boys’ school. If she was hoping to regain some of the challenge and respect of her Santo Domingo years, she was soon disabused of that notion. The school treated her as little more than a servant and maid in spite of her medical degree. The woman who had once been the medical treasure of an island was found by her nephew and daughter ironing, washing and cooking for the school’s students.


She did escape that position thanks to her relatives, who railroaded over the school’s attempts to say that she was legally bound to remain in her position until her death, but she never returned to the profession that had brought her so much satisfaction in younger days. She died in 1933 at the age of 83 at the home of her daughter, who took great comfort in the fact that her mother expired during the day, surrounded by the light of the sun.



FURTHER READING:


Sarah Loguen Fraser’s daughter Gregoria Fraser Goins wrote our primary source for Loguen’s life, Underground Railroad Princess: Sarah Loguen Fraser, MD, which has, for who can say what possible reason, not yet been published. As such, we are left to hear about her life from people who have had access to that manuscript and shared its contents in one form or another with the world. ‘Send Us a Lady Physician’ Women Doctors in America: 1835–1920 is a wonderful resource from 1985 which features a chapter on the history of black women physicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but less than a paragraph on Loguen. For a more complete perspective, Three Nineteenth-Century Women Doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Walker and Sarah Loguen Fraser (2007) has a very nice chapter by Susan Keeter, who as an artist is also responsible for one of the most famous representations of Loguen.


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