Originally established in 1862 at Camp Barker, a Washington, D.C., army barracks, to serve displaced former slaves and other Civil War refugees, this medical facility was named Freedmen's Hospital in 1863. Alexander T. Augusta, a black army physician, served as its surgeon-in-chief for a short time, succeeding Dr. Daniel Breed. Augusta was the first of many staff physicians to complain about the substandard physical conditions of the hospital. Freedmen's would continue to struggle to serve its indigent clients in the face of economic hardship and outdated equipment.
In January 1865, Dr. Robert Reyburn assumed the leadership of Freedmen's Hospital. The following year Reyburn was appointed to the medical faculty of the proposed Howard University, establishing the longstanding connection between the two institutions. In 1869 the hospital moved to buildings newly built by the Freedmen's Bureau on the university campus. This relationship kept the hospital alive past 1872, when the Freedmen's Bureau was officially dismantled. However, the staff of the hospital fought to retain their autonomy as the university sought to gain control of the facilities, which served the important function of a teaching hospital for black nursing and medical students.
After the demise of the Freedmen's Bureau, the hospital was placed under the Department of the Interior. In 1873 a black doctor, Dr. Charles B. Purvis, was named surgeon-in-chief. In 1894, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the black physician credited with performing the first open-heart surgery, replaced Purvis. In 1897 he was replaced by Dr. Austin M. Curtis, who was succeeded four years later by Dr. William A. Warfield.
In 1892, Congress passed a law requiring the District of Columbia commissioners to contribute half of the hospital's funding and to control financing while the Department of the Interior continued to manage the hospital. This complicated arrangement proved inefficient, and the condition of the hospital worsened under it. In 1903 Congress authorized $350,000 for the construction of a new hospital. Two years later it put the hospital completely under the Department of the Interior, with a new arrangement whereby the hospital would contract in advance for an estimated allotment of patients. The number of patients admitted, however, always exceeded the number allowed for in the contract, and the hospital administrators were forced to run the facility under a financial deficit. On February 26, 1908, the new facilities were occupied. On June 26, 1912, a law was passed allowing the hospital, which until this time had been restricted to treating indigents, to admit paying patients.
In 1936, Dr. T. Edward Jones was named Freedmen's surgeon-in-chief. His successor, in 1944, was Charles Richard Drew. These two leaders had to negotiate the hospital's conflicting purposes of providing medical care to its indigent clients, one third of whom were white, and providing medical training to black students who continued to be denied access to white hospitals. In 1955 a government study deploring the substandard physical conditions recommended that a new hospital be built and turned over to Howard. On September 15, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed a bill officially placing Freedmen's Hospital under Howard University's control and authorizing the construction of a new facility. On March 2, 1975, Howard University Hospital was opened, replacing Freedmen's Hospital.
Holt, Thomas, Cassandra Smith-Parker, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. A Special Mission: The Story of Freedmen's Hospital, 1862–1962. Washington, D.C.: Academic Affairs Division, Howard University, 1975.
Robinson, Harry G., III, and Hazel Ruth Edwards. The Long Walk: The Placemaking Legacy of Howard University. Washington, D.C.: Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, 1996.
lydia mcneill (1996)