Purvis, Charles Burleigh

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Charles Burleigh Purvis

Surgeon, physician, educator

Aphysician, educator, and community leader, Charles Burleigh Purvis was ahead of his time in several ways. He was one of eight black surgeons in the Union Army during the Civil War and was the first African American on the faculty of a U.S. medical college. He became the surgeon-in-charge at Freedmen's Hospital and provided medical services to the black community of Washington D.C.


Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 14
Studies at Oberlin College
Serves as military nurse
Receives M.D. degree from Wooster Medical College; joins Union Army as acting assistant surgeon
Joins medical faculty of Howard University faculty
Co-founds interracial National Medical Society of the District of Columbia
Marries Ann Hathaway
Holds Thaddeus Stevens Chair at Howard medical school
Becomes surgeon-in-chief of Freedmen's Hospital; attends President James Garfield when he is shot on July 2
Serves as member of Board of Medical Examiners
Serves as president of medical school faculty at Howard
Elected dean of medical school, but declines
Becomes licensed to practice medicine on Massachusetts; accepted into Massachusetts Medical Society
Relocates to Boston, Massachusetts but maintains affiliation with Howard
Resigns teaching position at Howard University
Elected to Board of Directors at Howard University
Resigns from Howard University Board of Directors on June 1
Dies in Los Angeles, California, on December 14

Charles Burleigh Purvis was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a well-to-do abolitionist family on April 14, 1842. His grandfather, William Purvis, a cotton broker, had left England around 1790, becoming a naturalized American citizen. His grandmother, Harriet Judah, was free-born, although she was the daughter of a slave, Dido Badaraka, who had been kidnapped from her native Morocco at the age of twelve and sold into bondage. Given her freedom when she was nineteen, Dido had married a German, Baron Judah. Their daughter, Harriet Judah, and William Purvis had three sons; one of them was Robert Purvis, Charles' father. Charles' mother, Harriet Forten, was the daughter of James Forten, a wealthy black businessman, sail maker, and abolitionist. Harriet was an abolitionist and an ardent supporter of women's rights. In December 1833, she became a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, along with her mother and sisters. Robert Purvis was a major force in the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia; he was also an abolitionist and supporter of women's rights. He assisted in the efforts of the Underground Railroad. Robert Purvis and Harriet Forten were married in 1831; they had eight children. Charles Purvis was the fifth child born to the couple.

When Charles was about two years old, his family moved to Byberry, a small farming community near Philadelphia. He and his brothers and sisters attended local Quaker schools. As he matured, Purvis worked on the farm and was exposed to local anti-slavery and abolitionist activities. Charles and his brothers and sisters were accustomed to life on a farm, and as he grew older he continued in this occupation for a number of years. Many of the farmers supported the anti-slavery movement and admired and respected his father's devotion and work toward this effort.

Attends College and Joins the Military

Charles Purvis attended Oberlin College from 1860 to 1863. He transferred to Wooster Medical College (later incorporated into Western Reserve University) in Cleveland as the rumblings of the Civil War began. He received his medical degree in 1865, when he graduated from the medical school.

In 1864 Purvis served as a military nurse at Camp Barker, a contraband hospital in Washington, D.C. The site was later the foundation of Freedmen's Hospital. Purvis provided medical assistance to many slaves who had either been freed by Union soldiers in the South or had escaped their masters. These freemen were referred to as contraband. The relief center, located in the Camp Barker barracks, was a model for Freedmen's Hospital, where Purvis would spend twenty-five years as a surgeon. While at the relief center, Purvis contracted typhoid fever, but after recovering in 1865, he joined the Union Army as an acting assistant surgeon. He continued to serve in that capacity until 1869.

Upon graduation from medical school Purvis petitioned the United States Volunteers to become an assistant surgeon for the Union Army. When his petition was accepted, he became one of only eight African Americans accepted as surgeons during the war. Purvis was a first lieutenant from 1865 to 1869, assigned to the Washington, D.C. area. After the Civil War, when the Bureau of Refugees, Freed-men, and Abandoned Lands took on the responsibility for medical services for blacks, Purvis, like many African American physicians, contracted his services.

Joins the Medical Faculty at Howard University

In the seven years between 1860 and 1867, the black population of Washington D.C. grew from some 14,000 to nearly 39,000, but the city had only six black physicians. Purvis was one of the physicians who served this community. The responsibility of providing medical services to the Washington, D.C. black population may have intensified for Purvis after Howard University was founded in 1867. While he continued to work as an assistant surgeon in the outdoor clinic, by March 15, 1869, he was on Howard University's faculty. In the 1860s, Howard's students and faculty were predominantly white, and at the time Purvis was only the second African American to hold a faculty position at a U.S. medical college. (The first was Alexander T. Augusta.) Charles Purvis was a learned man. Between 1869 and 1873, he lectured on many topics related to medicine, including material medica, a branch of medical science dealing with the use of drugs to treat illnesses; therapeutics; botany; and medical jurisprudence. A successful academic, he held the Thaddeus Stevens Chair for a year (1871–72). He was also a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and diseases of women and pediatrics from 1873 to 1889. The Board of Trustees conferred an honorary degree on Purvis in 1871, and he received a LL.D. in 1914.

Purvis's wife Ann Hathaway, whom he married in April 13, 1871, was white—a marriage which probably caused the couple some anguish in response to the reactions from members of both the black and white communities. They had two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom chose medical careers: Alice became a physician; Robert became a dentist.

In 1873 Howard University, like the rest of the country, faced an economic crisis. The medical faculty was told they would have to resign or work without pay. Charles Purvis was among those who elected to work pro bono until 1907, when the crisis ended. He and some of his colleagues, including Alexander Augusta and Gideon Palmer, were most likely able to do this because of their private medical practices. According to Michael Winston in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, in 1873 Purvis wrote to General Otis Howard, the university president for whom the institution is named: "While I regret the university will not be able to pay me for my services, I feel the importance of every effort being made to carry forward the institution and to make it a success." Purvis was also a powerful lobbyist who was able to influence Congress to appropriate $600,000—a vast sum at the time—for a new building to house the Freedmen's Hospital.

During this period, Purvis became secretary pro tempore of the medical department at Howard. He remained in this position until 1896. Under his direction, the department was reorganized and the staff was reminded to keep abreast of recent medical developments. His leadership helped to insure that African Americans and women would have the opportunity to receive a medical education and become physicians. Purvis was also president of the faculty from 1899 to 1900, and in 1900 he was elected dean of the medical school but declined.

Treats President, Denied Admittance to Medical Society

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was mortally wounded by an assassin. Charles Purvis was one of the physicians asked to give the president medical treatment. He became the first and only African American to provide assistance to a sitting president. In acknowledgement of his service President Chester A. Arthur appointed him surgeon-in-chief of Freedmen's hospital, the facility affiliated with Howard University's medical department. This act made Purvis the first black to head a hospital under civilian authority. Charles Purvis remained in the position until 1894. Racism still existed, however, and Purvis was denied admittance to the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, a branch of the American Medical Association, because of his race. This caused great concern among white physicians who supported his application and opposed the racist policies of the organization. In response, in 1870 he and other black physicians formed the interracial National Medical Society of the District of Columbia.

Charles Purvis was active in community institutions in Washington and served on the board of education, the board of health, and the board of medical examiners in the Washington D. C. area from 1897 to 1904. He was also on the board of trade. Purvis was licensed to practice medicine in Massachusetts in 1904 and in that same year was admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society. He relocated to Boston in 1905 and continued to practice medicine; he also maintained his affiliation with Howard. He resigned his teaching position at Howard in 1907 and became a member of the board of directors in 1908. He remained on the board until 1926. Charles Purvis died in Los Angeles, California on December 14, 1929. He was an important leader in the medical profession and a pioneer black medical educator as well.



Logan, Rayford W. Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867–1967. New York: New York University Press, issued under the auspices of Howard University, 1969.

Newby, M. Dalyce. "Charles Burleigh Purvis." In American National Biography. Vol. 17. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Spradling, Mary Mace. In Black and White: A Guide to Magazine Articles, Newspaper Articles, and Books Concerning More than 15,000 Black Individuals and Groups. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1980.

Winston, Michael. "Charles Burleigh Purvis." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.


Miller, Kelly. "The Historic Background of the Negro Physician." Journal of Negro History 1 (February 1916): 99-109.

Miller, Sammy M., and C. B. Purvis. "An Unpublished Letter from Dr. Charles B. Purvis to Judge Robert Heberton Terrell." Journal of Negro History 63 (July 1978): 235-37.


All About Black Health. http://www.allaboutblackhealth.com/historyofblackphysicians.htm (Accessed 21 July 2005).

Bankard, Bob. "The Underground Railroad In Bucks, Burlington, and Montgomery County." Phillyburbs. com http://www.phillyburbs.com/undergroundrailroad/purvis.shtml 2005 (Accessed 1 March 2006).

Purvis Family. http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Pointe/6765/purvisfam.html (Accessed 1 March2006).

                                     Mario A. Charles