Health Team

Shaw was first in training African-American doctors

Posted February 28, 2013
Updated March 6, 2013

— In 1882, after the Civil War, freed slaves in the state lacked basic medical care. Part of the solution began when Shaw University opened the nation’s first four-year medical school.

“It was the first four-year, before Howard, Duke, or any other,” Shaw Trustee Dr. George Debnam said.

Debnam, 83, is a retired family medicine physician and claims to know more about the Leonard School of Medicine, the hospital and pharmacy than anyone else alive today.

“It trained 432 doctors and 100 pharmacists,” Debnam said.

The school was established with the help of northern Baptists to train black physicians.

“They came from the Bahamas. They came from 18 or more states and several foreign countries to be educated here – and went back to practice,” said Shaw University President Dorothy Yancy.

Shaw University Shaw was first in training African-American doctors

By 1918, financial woes closed the school because the northern benefactors preferred their funding be used to train preachers and teachers.

However, Debnam said that school graduates established medical practices and hospitals in the state, which served as a key training ground for black interns.

“Between the Potomac and the Mississippi, there was no other place you could get a certified internship,” said Debnam.

Though a divinity school now fills the Leonard Building, Shaw offers pre-med courses as well as medical research to continue the health care legacy.

“Our students do a lot of research on prostate cancer,” Yancy said. “They go down to Jamaica and they have the Shaw and Jamaica project.”

School trustees such as Debnam insist on keeping the legacy alive for future generations.


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  • elvmat23 Mar 6, 2013

    Thanks for this excellent report! Very informative!

    I think there is a typo in the text version though, the statement of " I trained 432" etc is not what Dr. Debnam said, that is clear on the tape, looks like that should have read "It(ie Leonard Medical School) trained 432 doctors and 100 pharmacists" in the text version. The tape shows Dr. Debnam clearly saying the Leonard Medical School did the training, not him personally.

    It is always great to know more about the history of the area, and Leonard Medical school is certainly worth knowing about. Wish the school had not closed, the Flexner report that closed Leonard closed over 200 Medical schools, both those that admitted Black students and those that only admitted White students under the Jim Crow laws present at the time. History is always good to know, and helps us know that progress is being made as America continues,so again, this report is a good start to learning more about Raleigh History and that of Shaw University.

  • chrisnrali Mar 4, 2013

    Just keep doing everything possible to separate yourselves. Then complain about being different.

  • beef Mar 4, 2013

    "Debnam, 83 ... “I trained 432 doctors and 100 pharmacists"

    Apaprently not at Shaw, because it closed 12 years before he was born. What does that have to do with the story? I guess I am just supposed to hang my head in guilt.

  • Vincent Vega Mar 1, 2013

    The highest Black student graduation rate at the HBCUs is at Spelman College in Atlanta. There, 79% of students graduate from Spelman within six years. The Black student graduation at Spelman College is 15%points higher than at any other HBCU.
    The graduation rate at Howard University is 64%. This ranks Howard second. Morehouse College in Atlanta ranks third with a Black student graduation rate of 61%.
    The only other HBCU with a Black student graduation rate of more than 50% is Hampton University in Virginia, at 54% earning a degree at Hampton within six years.
    At nearly half the HBCUs the Black student graduation rate is 33%or lower. Shaw comes in at 31%.

  • Sweetgrl3 Mar 1, 2013


  • tmcenally Feb 28, 2013

    Yes there was a med school. Probably had some very smart people too. But folks decided that the mission of this historically black college would be better fulfilled by producing black baptist preachers to help folks find salvation than black physicians treating obesity, diabetes, cancer and a host of other deadly problems endemic to the black community. Tell me, does that help the disenfranchised?