Queen's University Faculty of Medicine racist past examined
February 24, 2019
When mention is made of Queen’s University and Black history, the name that readily comes to mind is Robert Sutherland who was its first Black student and graduate.
He left his entire estate of $12,000 – which was then equal to Queen’s annual operating budget – to the university to help place it on a solid financial footing in the wake of a banking crisis that threatened its existence at the time.
A decade ago, the university honoured the major benefactor who died in 1878 by renaming its policy studies building after him.
Not much is known of the Queen’s Faculty of Medicine unjust decision in 1918 to expel 15 Black medical students, the majority from the Caribbean. The reason bandied was that soldiers wounded during the war weren’t amenable to be treated by Black students.
While it didn’t escape the public attention at the time, many bought the university’s version that White patients at the military hospital set up on campus during the war had refused to be treated by non-White doctors and for that reason it was impossible to continue training Black doctors.
“It was promoted as an act of mass expulsion and that is more or less the way the story stood for about 100 years,” said the university’s research & innovation administrator Edward Thomas.
After attending a town hall meeting in early 2017 in response to students’ racist behavior at Queen’s, the former journalist left with a few questions.
“What is the institutional story here and what’s the narrative of Queen’s struggle with recurring incidents of racist behavior or attitudes?” Thomas, whose father was an immigrant from Jamaica, wanted to know. “My natural inclination as a journalist was to say, ‘What is the best and worst things that have ever happened’? I started with the worst thing that ever happened.”
While sifting through the Queen’s encyclopedia in search of answers, the Black medical students’ expulsion caught his attention.
It didn’t take Thomas long to figure out that the ejection had nothing to do with the story peddled by the university.
“In 1917, the medical school was at a real risk of failing,” he said. “Later that year, a new principal was appointed and the first thing he did was raise money from the Carnegie Foundation to bail out faculties that were in trouble. I found out pretty quickly that he had a very dim view about the prospects of saving Queen’s medical school and it is almost immediate with his appointment as principal that the Dean of Medicine, after decades of training Black doctors, is issuing this memo saying the patients at the military hospital are vehemently opposed to being treated by Black doctors.”
Looking through the exchange of letters between the university and the American Medical Association (AMA) helped support Thomas’ belief.
“I have built a very strong case that the university’s ban was done in an attempt to position it as especially AMA compliant in the hopes that this would better position the university to acquire funds from the Rockefeller Foundation,” he pointed out. “Out of my research, I have generated that the principal aspects of the ban probably had to do with the possibility of money.”
Of the 15 students who left Queen’s after the ban was announced, two failed to secure spots at other medical schools.
Ethelbert Bartholomew, a fourth-year student in good standing, became a Canadian Pacific Railway porter before passing away in Montreal in 1954. He was the uncle of 87-year-old Trinidadian professor emeritus Courtenay Bartholomew who diagnosed the first case of AIDS in the English-speaking Caribbean.
David Harriett became a labourer in Toronto.
Arthur Terry-Thompson, who was accepted at another medical school, was forced to quit after his parents died. He earned his doctor of divinity in 1939 and founded the St. James African Orthodox Church in New York.
Nearly half of the cohort affected by the ban eventually graduated from Queen’s.
They included Grenadian Alvinus Calder who refused to leave the university and completed his residency under the supervision of a private obstetrician, and Barbadian Hugh Cummins who co-founded the Barbados Labour Party and was the island’s premier from 1958-1961.
Calder opened a private practice in Sydney, Nova Scotia where he passed away in 1975.
Among those that left after the ban was announced and graduated from other medical schools were Barbadian Curtis Skeete who completed his medical education at Tufts in 1925 and founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Eastern Long Island branch, and Trinidadian Hubert Cezair who attended the University of Edinburgh.
Cezair’s home in Manchester, England, was the meeting place for many West Indian and African scholars and intellectuals, including eminent Jamaican lawyer and Pan-Africanist Dudley Thompson, Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta.
Thompson, who married Cezair’s daughter, played a key role in securing a team of high-powered international lawyers to defend Kenyatta who was charged by the British government in 1952 with helping to instigate the Mau Mau rebellion.
Though the team was unsuccessful in acquitting Kenyatta, it brought international attention and pressure to bear on Kenya’s political situation. After his release, he pursued a political career and became the first prime minister and then first president of independent Kenya.
“Cezair was a critical catalytic factor in a global movement,” noted Thomas. “If his salon is not this gathering place, does Thompson ever become a Pan-Africanist, does Kenyatta beat the rap, does Kenya ever gain its independence and does Nkrumah manage to carry the argument for Ghanaian independence? The catalytic effects of these Queen’s University alumni lives are rather gigantic.”
Last September, he successfully put forward a notice of motion to Queen’s University senate seeking the repeal of the 1918 motion barring Black medical students.
“You have people like Dr. Cummins preparing his nation for independence and there’s not a single mention of these historically important names in any Queen’s publication or utterance,” said Thomas who is the associate director (external relations) at the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute.
He is pursuing a doctorate part-time in cultural studies on the advice of his wife – Ingrid Gagnon -- who is the Queen’s University Project Portfolio Office training co-ordinator.
Thomas has a first degree in engineering chemistry and a Master’s in chemical engineering from Queen’s University along with a diploma in print journalism from Loyalist College.
“The thesis will do with the history of the Black students that were barred in 1918,” he said. “I am very interested in this particular cohort of students and what it meant to be a Black professional in medicine in particular. I am trying to understand how the profession of medicine was constructed really between the 1870s to the early 2000s. Race is a really prominent factor in the way that this trade emerges from this kind of apprenticeship system into this kind of ‘credentialship’ system. Systemic racism plays a monumentally large role in this. A very large part of the civil rights movement can trace its roots to this issue of the medical profession being largely closed to Black people and all that portends for actual access to medical services.”
Queen’s University doesn’t escape the research of Thomas who grew up in Alberta and northern Ontario.
“The institution, for a very long time, believed a certain thing about itself and it elevated that belief about knowing things about itself,” he said. “One of the many crises of our time is this idea that belief and knowledge are equivalent structures for conducting ourselves. For me, this is an epistemological failure.
“How can that happen at a university which is the one institution that’s supposed to be dedicated above all other things to knowing things and placing that as a much higher priority than believing things? How does a story that is so easily disprovable persist in a university of all places?”