Health Team

Shaw was first in training African-American doctors

Posted February 28, 2013 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated March 6, 2013 6:37 p.m. EST

— 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.

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.