A Visit with Dr. DeGrasse: The Medical Account Book of Boston’s First Black Physician

by Mia Levenson, Tufts University, Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow

medical account book
John Van Surly DeGrasse’s medical account book

By the serendipitous combination of the pandemic’s limitations and a mislabeled folder, I found myself with scans of John Van Surly DeGrasse’s medical account book, located in the DeGrasse-Howard papers. At first glance, a medical account book seemed like an opaque collection of names, services, and charges. However, I found his records to be filled with nuggets of information about how medicine plays a role in people’s lives, both patient and physician. Through a careful excavation process using census data and city directories, I was able to find bits and pieces about the ways in which one of the first African American physicians educated in the United States served his community.

There has been little written on DeGrasse and his life, but what we do know is that alongside another student of color, he was one of the first Black graduates of the Maine Medical School at Bowdoin College in 1849. DeGrasse practiced in Europe and New York City before coming to Boston in 1852. Two years later, he became a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society and was the first Black physician to be admitted into a medical society anywhere in the nation. His medical account book, which records his services rendered from 1852 to 1857, offers fascinating insight about his practice as the first Black physician in Boston from the very beginning through the contentious years before the Civil War.

While DeGrasse’s account book notes the monotony of his day-to-day work – most of the entries are simply charges for “visit and prescription” – there are also references to the kinds of treatments he would administer. Bloodletting, for example, was a common practice in nineteenth century medicine and DeGrasse similarly used cupping and leeches on several patients. DeGrasse also inoculated many of his patients, particularly in 1854, which corresponds with a massive smallpox epidemic that year. In the mid-nineteenth century, vaccination was a contentious debate, so it is notable that DeGrasse not only believed in its efficacy but administered vaccines to the marginalized communities he served.

While only a few diagnoses are included in his records, what DeGrasse chose to include provides insight into the kinds of diseases he encountered. One John Henry Garrison passed away during a minor cholera outbreak in 1854. Two of DeGrasse’s patients, Mr. H and Lloyd McCabe, were treated for venereal disease. It is unclear why their diagnosis was remarked upon while others were not. Perhaps it noted a potentially chronic issue. Or maybe it explained why they were charged significantly more for their treatment (for instance, for McCabe, DeGrasse charged him $15 for a visit and prescription rather than the usual $1).

Genealogical research gives a closer look into the communities DeGrasse served.[1] Operating out of Poplar Street, he primarily treated patients living in the Fifth and Sixth Wards, a once historically Black neighborhood that is now known as Beacon Hill and the West End, respectively. DeGrasse began his practice treating mainly his in-laws, the well-known Howard family. Interestingly, he treated his wife’s nephew, Edwin Clarence Howard, who would later go on to be Harvard Medical School’s first Black graduate. Peter Baldwin also appears in DeGrasse’s records as one of his first non-relative patients. A noted abolitionist, his daughter, Maria Louise Baldwin, would become a leader of Black education in Cambridge. DeGrasse’s records thus reveals how he served an emerging African American middle class in Boston that was intricately linked to nineteenth-century activism.

Among DeGrasse’s patient base were also a number of African Americans who were born in slave states. One such patient, Benjamin C. Gregory, who was a regular of DeGrasse’s, was born in North Carolina. Historians can only imagine what it must have meant for a formerly enslaved person—whose experiences with physicians were exclusive to plantation doctors who viewed them as chattel rather than people—to be treated by a Black physician.

DeGrasse did not only serve Boston’s African American community. While census data does not always provide information on race, he had multiple patients who were born in Ireland, like William Mellen and Ellen Marshall. While a contemporary physician of color, James McCune Smith in New York City, has been noted as having a multi-racial patient base, it has yet to be acknowledged that DeGrasse had one as well.[2] During his time as an assistant surgeon in the Union Army, DeGrasse continued to serve both white and Black soldiers. After the War, he returned to Boston and continued with his medical practice until his death in 1868.[3]

As historians continue to pan for golden flakes of information about nineteenth-century life, DeGrasse’s medical account book gives small but marvelous glints of one of the nation’s first Black physicians. His medical practice, the illnesses he encountered, and the communities he served offer glimpses into how DeGrasse’s groundbreaking work fit into the constellation of Boston society. His records have been a wonderful reminder for me that the archive is filled with these treasures if only we pause to look.


[1] All genealogical research was done using the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census and the 1855 Massachusetts State Census, all accessed via AncestryLibrary.com

[2] John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 66.

[3] Franklin A. Dorman, Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts: 1742-1998, (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1998), 155-7.