Giles, Roscoe C.
Roscoe C. Giles
Roscoe Conkling Giles's admission to Cornell University Medical School was the first in a series of firsts for the pioneering African American surgeon. He was also the first African American to receive his medical degree from the institution and was the first black certified by the American Board of Surgery. Over the span of more than fifty years, Giles was a dedicated teacher, uniquely talented surgeon, and author of dozens of highly regarded medical papers.
Roscoe Giles was born May 6, 1890 in Albany, New York. He was the son of Reverend Francis Fenard and Laura Caldwell Giles. In addition to his work as a minister in New York City, Giles's father was also an attorney. Giles was raised in Brooklyn and graduated from Boys' High School in 1907. He displayed a talent for oration while in high school, winning the B.B. Christ medal and a scholarship to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. At Cornell, Giles majored in literature and was a member of the crew team. His fraternity brothers of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity recognized his natural leadership skills. In 1910, he was elected the group's national president.
Given his talent as a speaker, it seemed natural that Giles would follow in his father's footsteps. But Giles had other plans. The elder Giles had encouraged his son toward a career in medicine since childhood, and Giles set his sights on becoming a doctor. Upon his graduation with an A.B. degree in 1911, Giles became the first African American to be admitted to Cornell University Medical School.
When it came time to do an internship, Giles's options were limited because of his race; few medical institutions welcomed African American medical students. He was accepted to Provident Hospital in Chicago, where he studied under George Cleveland Hall, Daniel Hale Williams, C. G. Roberts, and U. Grant Dailey. Giles maintained his association with Provident Hospital for the rest of his life. He received his medical degree from Cornell in 1915, becoming the first black to do so. Race became an issue again as Giles prepared to begin his career in medicine. Despite outscoring 250 other applicants on the civil service examination, he was passed over for junior physician appointments at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium and Oak Park Infirmary because of his race.
The year 1917 was significant both professionally and personally for Giles. That year, alderman Oscar DePriest intervened on his behalf, and Giles was appointed supervisor of the Chicago Health Department by Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson. He also received an honorary attending physician position at Cook County Hospital, which was a formality, as he performed no medical duties there.
Also in 1917, Giles became part of Provident Hospital's pioneering education program aimed at black medical students. Provident was the first institution to address the needs of black, postgraduate-level medical students. Giles was named assistant attending surgeon at Provident, which made him one of the program's first teachers. According to A Century of Black Surgeons: The U.S.A. Experience, Volume I, Giles was well suited for the task. He has been described as being a perceptive teacher and a conscientious caregiver. He was known for visiting his patients as often as he felt was needed, "day, night, or every half hour." Giles was known for having the patience to provide thorough postoperative care, guiding even the most traumatized patients back to caring for themselves.
During this time, he was an attending surgeon for Southside hospital, and he began a private practice that continued until his death in 1970. Giles's personal life also thrived in 1917. On January 9, 1917, Giles married Frances Reeder. They eventually had three sons together: Roscoe C. Giles I (who died as a child), Oscar DePriest Giles, and Roscoe C. Giles II.
- Born in Albany, New York on May 6
- Graduates from Boys' High School in Brooklyn
- Elected national president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity
- Becomes first African American admitted to Cornell University Medical School
- Becomes first African American to graduate from Cornell University Medical School
- Appointed supervisor of the Chicago Health Department by Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson; receives honorary attending physician position at Cook County Hospital; becomes part of Provident Hospital's program aimed at black medical students; marries Frances Reeder on January 9
- Publishes first paper, "Rickets: The Surgical Treatment of the Chronic Deformities of, with Emphasis on Bow-Legs and Knock-Knees," in the Journal of the National Medical Association
- Elected to the National Medical Association
- Earns Rockefeller fellowship to study in Vienna, Austria
- Earns General Education Board and Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, studies bone pathology at University of Chicago
- Elected president of the National Medical Association
- Becomes first African American certified by the American Board of Surgery
- Becomes founding member of the International College of Surgeons in Chicago
- Publishes "A Ten-Year Survey of Gall Bladder Surgery at Provident Hospital"
- Honored by the Masons for contributions to race relations
- Dies in Chicago, Illinois on February 19
In addition to his skills as a teacher and physician, Giles kept up on literature of developing medical tech-niques and practices. With the help of his wife, a registered nurse, Giles read widely in medical journals, and attended medical meetings and conventions. He was able to draw upon the latest literature when assessing a patient's condition and treatment needs.
Giles published his first paper, "Rickets: The Surgical Treatment of the Chronic Deformities of, With Emphasis on Bow-Legs and Knock-Knees," in the Journal of the National Medical Association in 1922. His subsequent contributions to the JNMA included papers on pancreatic cysts, intestinal obstructions, intestinal surgery, spine fractures, tuberculosis, and appendicitis, among other topics. Giles gained stature among his medical peers and, in 1926, was elected to the National Medical Association. He remained a member of the organization until 1935.
In 1929, Giles was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship to study in Vienna. In his time abroad, he studied with Von Eiselberg at the Institute of Traumatic Surgery, with Jacob Erdheim and Rudolf Maresh. He wrote about his experiences overseas in several JNMA articles.
Giles's JNMA publications during the mid-1930s focused on bone diseases, largely because, in 1933, he was awarded a General Education Board and Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship. He spent his fellowship studying bone pathology at the University of Chicago.
In 1937, at the annual convention for the National Medical Association, a professional group of African American doctors, Giles was elected president by his peers. Among the committees to which he was appointed, one was known as the Giles committee. The Giles committee's goal was to convince the American Medical Association to removed the abbreviation "col." from its directory after the names of African American physicians. After much struggle, "col." was finally removed from the directory in 1940. Giles was later named to a special liaison committee between the National Medical Association and the American Medical Association, which then banded together on issues of mutual interest, such as health insurance. In 1938 Giles became the first African American certified by the American Board of Surgery.
Giles served the country during World War II as a member of the Army Medical Corps, and he published several papers based on his experience in the war. In 1945, he was invited to become a founding member of the International College of Surgeons in Chicago. He continued to serve as an assistant professor in surgery at Chicago Medical School (later Northwestern University) and as an attending surgeon at Westside Veterans Hospital and Cook County Hospital. He remained as an alternate attending physician in surgery at Northwestern from 1947 to 1952, then was an associate attending surgeon from 1953 until his retirement in 1959.
In 1953, Giles refuted a long-held misconception with his paper "A Ten-Year Survey of Gall Bladder Surgery at Provident Hospital," in which he stated that the disease was more prevalent in African Americans than was previously believed. Giles's last article was published in the American Journal of Surgery in May 1957. In December of that year, he was named one of One Hundred Outstanding Citizens of Chicago. Giles was honored by the Masons in 1960 for contributions to race relations. Giles died at Veterans Hospital in Chicago on February 19, 1970.
Organ, Claude H., and Margaret Kosiba, eds. A Century of Black Surgeons: The U.S.A. Experience, Volume I. Norman, OK: Transcript Press, 1987.
"The Special Liaison Committee." Journal of the National Medical Association 32 (1940): 260-61.