Berry, Leonidas H.

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Leonidas H. Berry

Physician, lecturer

In a remarkable and innovative medical career spanning over forty years, Leonidas H. Berry became a world-renown physician who dedicated his life to the pursuit of racial, physical, and economic parity for African Americans in Chicago through medicine, teaching, writing, lecturing, and community service. Berry was a pioneer in gastroscopy and gastroenterology. His expertise in the study of the human stomach was acclaimed worldwide beginning in the 1930s due to his ability as a physician and his pioneering success in the use of the endoscope. Berry produced several books, video recordings, and motion pictures to illustrate the study of the stomach and other organs affected by digestive disorders. In his fight against racial discrimination, Berry made unprecedented achievements in hospitals, medical societies, and medical associations around the world. He lectured worldwide as an individual and as a representative of several medical associations and societies. Contrary to theories that resonated throughout the medical community, when evaluating illnesses, Berry placed more emphasis on physical and economic causes than on race.


Born in Woodsdale, North Carolina on July 2
Receives B.S. from Wilberforce University
Receives second B.S. from University of Chicago
Earns M.D. from Rush Medical College of the University of Chicago
Interns at Freedmen's Hospital, Washington, D.C.
Earns M.S. degree in pathology from the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Illinois; begins interdisciplinary career in gastroenterology at Provident Hospital
Joins Cook County Hospital as the first African American attending staff physician in fifty years; begins career as first African American gastroscopist; invents the first direct-vision instrument, the gastroscopy scope, to remove diseased stomach tissue
Joins the staff of Michael Reese Hospital
Becomes the first medical director of the AME Health Commission and serves for thirty years
Implements the Berry Plan to provide medical counseling for black narcotics users
Begins presentations at World Congresses
Travels to Africa on behalf of the National Medical Association; lectures in medical schools and hospitals in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and Senegal; lectures on and demonstrates treatment of stomach diseases in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Philippines, and Hawaii
Organizes the Flying Black Medics to provide medical, dental, dietary, and social services to poor blacks in Cairo, Illinois
Authors fifteen of thirty-five chapters of Gastrointestinal Panendoscopy: esophagoscopy, gastroscopy, bulbar and postbulbar duodenoscopy, procto-sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and peritoneoscopy, a technical, instructional work
Publishes autobiography, I Wouldn't Take Nothin' for My Journey
Dies in Chicago, Illinois on December 4

Berry's family history and lifestyle shaped his career path and provided him with the initial determination necessary to become an outstanding physician and person. Berry's great-grandparents had been slaves. His paternal grandfather, also enslaved, lived in St. Mary's County, Maryland when he escaped slavery in 1863 by carrying a horse saddle over his shoulder as a decoy to get past slave hunters. When he had traveled sufficiently northward, he changed his name to John Berry and joined the military to fight in the Civil War. John Berry was one of the few African American soldiers who applied for pension payments after his military service. Berry's paternal and maternal grandparents became self-sufficient farmers, owning more than 368 acres. His parents, Llewellyn L. Berry and Beulah Ann Harris, met at Kittrell College and graduated in 1898. After graduation, Llewellyn served as a minister in the pastorate of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church for over thirty-two years and as secretary and treasurer of the department of home and foreign missions of the AME Church for twenty-three years. Beulah taught school for seven years after graduation. They were married in 1900 and the first of their six children, Leonidas H. Berry, was born on July 2, 1902 in Woodsdale, North Carolina.

Throughout his life, Berry's family was committed to community service with the AME Church as the anchor. The importance of education was instilled in the Berry family. Berry's father earned a doctor of divinity degree. All of the Berry children except one attended college and four were college students at the same time.

Berry grew up in Norfolk, Virginia where he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and then attended Wilberforce University in Ohio. He was a member of the Wilberforce University Choir. He was also on the football team and participated in debates. Berry graduated with a B.S. in 1924 and then went on to attend the University of Chicago where he earned a second B.S. in 1925. Berry entered Rush Medical College of the University of Chicago in 1925. All students were required to engage in a medical school clinical clerkship for a three-month observation period. However, in 1927, such opportunities were not available to black students. In his autobiography, I Wouldn't Take Nothin' for My Journey, Berry describes how such instances can be turned into assets. For example, Berry completed his clinical clerkship at a small, private, black-run hospital where he lived, worked, and observed for his last two years of school. The additional clinical experience he received as a result of his college's discrimination policies against blacks benefited him. He earned his M.D. in 1929 and completed a one-year internship at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1930. Berry then went on to the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, where he earned an M.S. degree in pathology in 1933. His master's thesis, "Tuberculosis and Race: Due to Adverse Economic and Social Conditions Not Race," challenged several theories that supported susceptibility of blacks to certain diseases. Between 1931 and 1934, Berry was a full-time University of Chicago fellow in internal medicine and digestive diseases at Cook County, Provident, and Billings hospitals. He joined the U. S. Army Medical Reserves in 1931 as a first lieutenant and served until 1941. He was promoted to captain of the Medical Corp, Illinois Militia in 1942, and retired as a major in 1947.

Professional Achievements

Berry began his progressive, interdisciplinary career in gastroenterology at Provident Hospital in 1933 as a junior attending physician. He was the first African American specialist in the field and the first to be certified by the subspecialty board of gastroenterology. In 1934, Rudolph Schindler, a German gastroenterologist, introduced the modern, flexible gastroscope to the United States and trained Berry in using it. Two years later, Berry was a pioneer in its use and one of the first twelve Americans to use the instrument. Provident Hospital advanced him to the position of associate attending physician in 1938. Berry remained in that capacity for five years. Beginning in 1943 he took on more administrative responsibility at Provident, assuming the division chairmanship of digestive diseases. From 1943 to 1946, he assumed the role of vice chairman for the department of medicine, and he became department chairman in 1946. He held the position for two years. Between 1942 and 1951, Berry also served as chairman of the Provident Hospital Advisory Board Selective Service System.

In 1946, Berry became the first African American attending staff physician of Cook County Hospital in fifty years, as Dan Williams had served from 1896 until 1946. At the same time, he became the first African American professor at the Cook County Graduate School of Medicine, where he taught gastroenterology and gastroscopy. He developed and conducted a special course from March 18 through March 30, 1963, in the technique of gastroscopy and endoscopic pathology of the stomach. Berry also joined Community Hospital in Evanston, Illinois in 1946 as a consulting gastroenterologist and remained there until 1963. He became the first African American in 1946 to join the medical staff of Michael Reese Hospital. Initially, he was hired as a courtesy staff physician of the department of medicine at Michael Reese and remained in that position for seventeen years. After many special appeals to the hospital board and constant battles against racial bias, he was advanced from a limited courtesy appointment to the attending physicians' staff in 1963. In 1952, Berry became a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Illinois where he served for five years. Berry was also called upon to serve as a consulting gastroenterologist and member of the governing board of the Women and Children's Hospital in Chicago in 1956. In 1974, he became a special deputy (in a part-time capacity) with the Cook County Hospital's governing commission, which supervised the operation of public hospital facilities in the Chicago area. The following year, after twenty-five years of service, Berry retired from Cook County Hospital as chief of endoscopy services and senior attending physician.

Berry combined his innovative medical career with outstanding community service. In 1931, Berry's father had published A Century of Missions of the AME Church, and Berry contributed a short chapter, "Opportunity of African Methodism in Medical Missions: A Prospectus." From that point forward, Berry's work addressed the physical and social welfare of humankind. Berry sought cures for disease by conducting research; as the medical director of the Correctional Health Commission of the AME Church, he addressed many people's needs. Then too he held dozens of other leadership positions in professional associations and societies.

Berry studied endoscopy under the German doctor Rudolph Schindler, who promoted the modern endoscope, a fiber-optic gastro-camera for viewing the digestive tract. Berry became one of the first Americans to use the instrument. He created the Eder-Berry biopsy gastroscope in 1936, the first direct-vision, suction instrument used to obtain stomach tissue samples for microscopic examination. The benefit of using this instrument is the minimal invasion necessary for obtaining the tissue sample. Berry taught hundreds of students and trained hundreds of physicians how to use the device. In 1941, Berry completed a first of its kind study of the stomachs of skid row alcoholics. Contrary to popular theories, Berry's study found that the livers, not the stomachs, were diseased as a result of alcohol. Berry read his research paper before the American Medical Association as the keynote speaker. Berry undertook another study in 1944 wherein he examined the possible areas and ways in which the AME Church might participate in the health field, as it had for the past one hundred years in the social services. Berry assumed the position of medical director of the Correctional Health Commission of the AME Church in 1946 and served in that capacity for thirty years.

In 1950, Berry set up the Council for Biomedical Careers, which funded health care conferences and career counseling sessions on such subjects as medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, medical technology, and how to use local and federal government facilities, public and private schools, and churches to encourage young black men to enter the health field. Berry also became president of the Cook County Physicians Association in 1950, at which time he led an interracial, interfaith, citywide movement for rehabilitating young drug addicts. Then-governor Adlai Stevenson set up an advisory committee to the Department of Public Health on narcotic programs to study the problem and made Berry a member. Berry proposed establishing four medical counseling clinics with the help of the state government to provide aid for drug addicts. Through an act of special legislation, the Illinois General Assembly appropriated $90,000 to set-up the Berry Plan. Berry set up medical clinics in Provident, Cook County, and Northwestern hospitals, and the Cook County Jail. The program was unique because it addressed the psychological and physical needs of the addicts and took a medical, rather than criminal, approach to treatment. The Berry Plan was operational from 1951 through 1958. Berry completed his internship at Freedmen's Hospital and became a founding member of the Association of Former Interns and Residents of Freedmen's Hospital. In 1952, he coordinated the first annual scientific assembly of the alumni. When the new Freedmen's Hospital was built, the group erected a plaque in the main lobby that gives the history of the hospital and of the relationship of the original Freedmen's Hospital to the new facility. In 1964, Berry received the William A. Warfield Award as president of the former interns.

World Travel

Through his publications, lectures, and worldwide presentations, Berry strove to expand human knowledge and awareness. He contributed 84 articles to national and international journals and societies and wrote six books. He was the first black physician to join and lecture before several medical associations and societies, some of which were the National Gastroenterological Association, the American Gastroscopic Society, the American College of Gastroenterology, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, and the American Medical Association. In addition, Berry participated in several world congress conferences, including the 1954 and 1981 World Congresses in Paris; the 1960 Pan American Congress in Santiago, Chili; and the 1966 World Congress in Tokyo. A conversation with Governor G. Mennen Williams in 1966 resulted in Berry's visit to five African countries for lectures and demonstrations on gastroenterology and gastroscopy. At the time, Williams, who was assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, arranged for Berry to take the trip under the auspices of the Department of State. Berry, who was president of the National Medical Association at the time, covered over 20,000 miles when he visited Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and Senegal in July 1966. Berry also visited their governing offices and villages and informed them of the work of the AME Church in the United States. In the fall of 1966, Berry went to Asia. He visited nine medical schools and hospitals in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Philippines, and Hawaii, giving lectures and demonstrations on stomach diseases.

The Flying Black Medics

In the fall of 1969, Berry attended a task force conference on health in Cairo, Illinois, because of news of almost nonexistent health care provisions for black and poor people. In February 1970, Berry coordinated a group of medics, known as the Flying Black Medics, who chartered two airplanes at Berry's expense and flew to Cairo to address medical needs of the residents. They set up three medical clinics in the basement of the Wards Chapel AME Church giving free health care, supplies, and examinations.

Regarding his cancer research project, which ended in 1975, Berry concluded that preventive care is the newest technique to use for early diagnosis of cancer. Berry received the Rudolph Schindler Award from the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. In 1978, Berry coordinated a forum and fellowship assembly on "Problems of Medical Care at the Cook County Hospital" that was sponsored by the AME Ministerial Alliance and Members of the Interdenominational Church Community.

Berry was frequently recognized for his medical accomplishments and his contributions to the national and international community. In 1963 he was appointed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to a twelve-man National Advisory council of Regional Medical Programs against heart disease, cancer and stroke. As president of the National Medical Association, he received an invitation to the White House stag dinner with the president, cabinet, and other dignitaries. Berry was also the recipient of the Alumni Citation for Public Service in 1966 from the University of Chicago and the Alumni Professional Achievement Award in 1978. Berry was honored when his portrait was presented to Provident Hospital as a testimonial. Also, the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago exhibited photographs and memorabilia of Berry and his areas of expertise in 1987. The exhibit was entitled, "Dr. Berry: Medical Pioneer."

The triumph associated with the end of his career at Cook County Hospital was the publication of Gastrointestinal Pan-endoscopy: esophagoscopy, gastroscopy, bulbar and postbulbar duodenoscopy, proctosigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, and peritoneoscopy in 1974. This 650-page technical, instructional book contained 128 color photographs of ulcers, cancers, and other diseases of the digestive canal as seen through fiber-optic endoscopes. Berry designed and edited the book, and authored fifteen of the chapters. Contributors from ten countries and four continents wrote twenty additional chapters. The book is unique in two ways: it is a culmination of Berry's life work; and it covers endoscopy of the entire upper gastrointestinal canal to the colon with fiber-optic instruments, procto-sigmoi-doscopy, and peritoneoscopy, all in one volume.

Berry published his autobiography, I Wouldn't Take Nothin'for My Journey, in 1986. He wrote the book, as he stated in it, "to put into perspective, not only the prejudices and obstacles against minorities, but to objectively and intelligently analyze and explain them and to illustrate how they can be overcome." Berry traces his family back to 1816, when Nace Jenifer was born a slave in St. Mary's County, the same year the AME Church was organized. Jenifer was a man of medicine in the tradition of the African doctor and a healer in St. Mary's County until he escaped from slavery and went to Canada. The title of the book came from a Negro spiritual that means life on this earth is only a journey of success and joy, despite overwhelming hardships. The reward comes from the journey and the spirit of survival. In 1986 Berry presented a copy of his autobiography and his personal papers to the National Library of Medicine, Washington, D.C. Berry died on December 4, 1995.



"Berry Elected President at the 69th Annual Convention of the NMA, Predominately Negro Organization Organized in 1895." The Bulletin of American Physicians, 27 August 1964.

"Celebrating a Book Anniversary." Ebony (November 2000): 56.

"Dr. Leonidas H. Berry, AME Health Director, Heals: Flying Black Medics." AME Christian Reader, 12 May 1970.

"How Famous Physician Sees: Deprivation and Disease." Sun Times (17 July 1964): 15.

Moore, Jackie. "Dr. Leonidas Berry: 40 Years of Volunteer Service." Chicago Defender, 17 October 1977.

Saxon, Wolfgang. "Leonidas H. Berry Is Dead at 93: Medical Expert Helped Blacks. New York Times, 12 December 1995.

Snider, Arthur J. "How the Endoscope Has Averted Operations." Chicago Daily News, 31 August-1 September 1974.


"African-American Contributions to Science and Industry." Inventors Assistance League. (Accessed 18 March 2005).


The Leonidas H. Berry Papers (1907–1982) are located in the Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland.

                                      Shelhea C. Owens