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Van Surly DeGrasse, John

John Van Surly DeGrasse

Physician, surgeon

John Van Surly DeGrasse was one of the first black Americans to be commissioned as surgeons in the U.S. Army. Born in New York City and educated at private, public, and undergraduate schools in New York, DeGrasse also studied in Paris and Maine. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1854, at a time when this type of honor was unheard of for men of color. DeGrasse was intelligent and persevering, the most accomplished of the colored pioneers in the post-Revolutionary and pre-Civil War eras.

DeGrasse was born in 1825 in New York City, one of several children of George DeGrasse, born in Calcutta, and Maria Van Surly of German parentage. Before the Civil War only a few blacks practiced medicine in the sense of participating in a discrete professional class with mainstream established traditions. Those who did were often denied access to normal lines of professional development, including membership in medical societies, or were shunned from medical practice, but their routes of entry into the profession tended to follow their white counterparts. Three major routes were self-education, apprenticeship, and medical school attendance. DeGrasse was one of those who managed to overcome the medical school color bar and receive formal training.

DeGrasse attended private and public schools in New York City until 1840. In 1840 he entered the Oneida Institute in New York. Then from 1843 to 1845, he studied medicine at Aubuk College in Paris. In 1845 he returned to New York City and commenced the study of medicine with Samuel R. Childs. On May 19, 1849, he received the M.D. degree with honors from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

DeGrasse went to Europe and spent time working in the hospitals of Paris, traveling periodically elsewhere in France and to England, Italy, and Switzerland. He returned to the United States on the Samuel Fox, working as a surgeon. After practicing medicine in New York City, he moved to Boston where he continued to practice.

Admitted to Massachusetts Medical Society

In recognition of his extraordinary ability, on August 24, 1854, DeGrasse was admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society. According to a Boston newspaper in 1854, it was the first time that an honor of that magnitude had been conferred upon a black man in the United States. DeGrasse may have been the most accomplished physician of his era.

A volunteer with the Union Army during the Civil War, DeGrasse served as assistant surgeon with the 35th U.S. Colored Troops in 1863. He was one of the first of eight blacks to be commissioned a surgeon in the U.S. Army. In appreciation of his service, Governor John A. Andrew presented him with a gold-hilted sword on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The cause of and circumstances around his death are unknown.


Born in New York City
Enters the Oneida Institute in New York
Studies medicine for two years in Paris
Receives his M.D. from Bowdoin College in Maine
Practices medicine in New York City
Becomes first African American in the Massachusetts Medical Society
Volunteers in Union army; serves as assistant surgeon in the 35th U.S. Colored Troops
Dies in unknown circumstances



Ahmed, Siraj. "John Van Surly DeGrasse." In Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. New York: Norton, 1982.

Asbury, Howard D. "John Van Surly DeGrasse." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

"John Van Surly DeGrasse." African American Breakthroughs. Eds. Jay P. Pederson and Jessie Carney Smith. New York: Gale Research, 1995.


African American Contributions to Science and Industry. (Accessed 25 February 2006).

Just Learning to be Men. Chapter Two: "They Have Been Slaves."∼ncusct/shana2.htm (Accessed 25 February 2006).

                                   Prudence White Bryant

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