Mossell, Nathan

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Nathan Mossell


Nathan Francis Mossell was one of the first generation of university-trained black physicians in the United States. After earning his degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1882, Mossell practiced in that city for several years before co-founding its Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, the first such institution dedicated to meeting the healthcare needs of Philadelphia's African American community which carried on its work until the early 1970s.

Nathan Mossell was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on May 15, 1856, the son of Aaron Albert Mossell and Eliza Bowers Mossell. By 1870, the family, which included his brothers Aaron and Charles and sisters Alvaretta and Mary, had moved to Lockport, New York, in Niagara County. Lockport was a mostly Quaker community and had been known as a haven for runaway slaves as far back as the 1820s. The Quakers, a Protestant pacifist sect, formally known as the Society of Friends, embraced not only religious tolerance but the expansion of civil liberties for all. Many Quakers were well-known abolitionists in pre-Civil War America.

Mossell attended Lincoln University, located in Chester County in southeastern Pennsylvania. The school was founded as the Ashmun Institute in 1854 as the first historically black college in the United States for men and was renamed in honor of slain U.S. President Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War. Mossell excelled in his studies and took the school's Bradley Medal in natural science. After earning his undergraduate degree from Lincoln in 1879, he went on to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This prestigious school had been founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin and boasted the country's first school of medicine. Mossell was its first black graduate, finishing second in his class in 1882.

Joins County Medical Society

Mossell underwent a period of training under D. Hayes Agnew at University Hospital in Philadelphia and then went on to London, England, for further study. He interned at Guy's, Queens College, and St. Thomas hospitals there, and by 1888 had returned to Philadelphia and was elected a member of the Philadelphia County Medical Society. He was the first African American to earn this distinction. He was part of a small but growing list of black physicians in the United States that dated back to James Derham. Born in 1762, Derham was a slave who was trained by the Philadelphia physician who owned him and was later sold to a doctor in New Orleans, where he had a thriving practice in that city for many years. In 1837, James Smith became the first black American physician to obtain a medical degree, but he earned it at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. A decade later, David Smith became the first black to graduate from an American medical school when he completed his training at Rush Medical College in Chicago.

Mossell practiced in Philadelphia and was a member of the city's black elite. He had wed Gertrude Emily Hicks Bustill in 1880, a teacher and journalist whose father had been a conductor in the Underground Railroad. They had two daughters, Florence and Mary, and Gertrude Mossell continued to write for a number of prominent black publications after the marriage. She served as the woman's editor of the New York Freeman and wrote a nationally syndicated column aimed at African American women. She also wrote The Works of the Afro-American Woman (1894), as well as a Sunday school book for children.

In August 1895, Mossell co-founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School in Philadelphia with some other black doctors in the city. The hospital, established to serve the city's black population, was funded with donations from wealthy Philadelphians both black and white, and with the help of renowned African Americans such as Madame C. J. Walker. It followed the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., founded during the Civil War and later a part of the Howard University medical system, and Provident Hospital of Chicago, established in 1881. At the time, U.S. hospitals did not grant African American physicians staff privileges, and black doctors like Mossell often had to operate on patients in their homes or in small clinics.

Douglass Memorial trained doctors as well as nurses for several generations. Mossell served as its medical director and chief of staff until 1933, when he retired. He died in 1946. Two years later, Douglass combined operations and staff with another facility that had also been serving the black community, Mercy Hospital. The merged entity operated in West Philadelphia until it closed its doors in 1973.

Mossell was one of dozens of distinguished graduates of Lincoln University in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For a hundred years after its 1854 founding, a stunning 20 percent of all black physicians in the United States had Lincoln degrees, and 10 percent of African American lawyers were Lincoln alumni, too, including the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.


Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on May 15
Moves with family to Lockport, New York
Graduates from Lincoln University
Marries Gertrude Emily Hicks Bustill
Earns M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania
Becomes member of Philadelphia County Medical Society
Co-founds the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School in Philadelphia
Retires as medical director and chief of staff of Douglass Memorial Hospital
Dies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The list of achievements for the distinguished Mossell family and its relatives by marriage is a lengthy one. Mossell's brother Aaron earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School as its first black graduate. Gertrude Mossell was a co-founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Afro-American Council in 1899, which was the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mossell's marriage made him the uncle of actor and activist Paul Robeson, whose mother was Gertrude's sister, Maria Louisa Bustill. Mossell's brother Aaron wed Mary Louise Tanner, the sister of acclaimed painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. Their daughter, Mossell's niece, was Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate degree in economics as well as the first black female graduate of the University of Pennsylvania law school.



"A Gallery of African American Alumni and Faculty." University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania. (Accessed 20 December 2005).

"Nathan Mossell Gave Much to Philadelphia." The African American Registry. 20 December 2005).

                                    Carol Brennan