Photo courtesy of Department of Historical Collections, Health
Sciences Library, SUNY Upstate Medical University.
In Spring 2012, the students of Prof. Sarah Berry’s Nineteenth-Century Women Healers course at Hobart and William Smith Colleges undertook a research project on Dr. Sarah Loguen Fraser (1850-1933), the first African American to graduate from Syracuse University College of Medicine in 1876, one of the first African American women to earn a medical degree, and the first woman doctor in Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). We are inspired by Dr. Fraser’s courage in the struggle for African American social equality, her contribution to women’s participation in medicine, and her lifelong commitment to improving healthcare for African Americans.
Dr. Sarah Loguen Fraser practiced family medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics for over 50 years, belonged to a pioneering African American professional association, the Order of Malachites, and was honored by Howard University in 1926. Yet after her death in 1933, she was largely forgotten for the rest of the twentieth century. Recently, she has been recognized by her medical college for her groundbreaking role in U.S. medical history. In 2000, on her 150th birthday, SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY commemorated Dr. Loguen Fraser with a street renaming, a commissioned portrait, and a scholarship (Warren-Moore). This is Dr. Loguen Fraser’s story.
Dr. Loguen Fraser was born in 1850 in Syracuse, NY as Sarah Marinda Loguen to Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen, a self-emancipated formerly enslaved man, and Caroline Storum Loguen, the daughter of abolitionists. The entire Loguen family broke racial constraints, produced social change, and achieved professional success throughout their lives. Their Syracuse home was a hub of reform work. In 1848, Rev. Loguen purchased a plot of land in Syracuse for eight hundred dollars from Joseph and Sarah Chapman (“Plot of Jermain Loguen,” OHA). On this land a house was built and a forty- by fifty-foot section was reserved to create a school for African American children. Loguen’s home also became a safe house for slaves in the Underground Railroad. In collaboration with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Rev. and Mrs. Loguen helped at least 1,500 fugitives on their way to freedom in Canada, earning Rev. Loguen the nickname "The Underground Railroad King" (Syracuse Journal, Oct. 1 1872; Mar 6, 1858). Rev. Loguen was a lively educator and tireless activist who spoke, preached, traveled, and organized to gain proper treatment, attitudes, and rights for himself as well as for all other people seeking to escape slavery. His example of perseverance and adherence to beliefs transcends the centuries; in his autobiography, he writes, "Let the love of justice and truth, the cries of bleeding humanity persuade them forth, and God will sustain them. Every man and woman must be within himself an embodiment of all a church or society can be for good. For myself, I am willing to co-operate with others, so long as I can do so and maintain my manhood" (Loguen 1859). Mrs. Loguen worked tirelessly to provide fugitives with food, clothing, and healthcare using Native American techniques shared by a local group of Iroquois women who visited often (Keeter 96).
Many of Rev. Loguen’s children would continue his work for equality and social justice. For example, Gerrit Smith Loguen, Dr. Loguen Fraser’s younger brother, serves as a powerful example that the color of one’s skin by no means defines one’s capabilities. While Dr. Loguen Fraser would demonstrate this in her medical practice, Gerrit achieved success as a politician and an artist. The careers of both siblings illustrated to their contemporaries that societal constructions of gender and race have no bearing on achievement.
Sarah Loguen Fraser grew up in a family of activists who publicly changed the face of racial justice before and during the Civil War. After the death of her mother in 1867 and her father in 1872, Sarah, now 22 years old, decided she would carry on her family’s work through medicine. According to her biography in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, she witnessed an accident in which a young boy was pinned beneath wagon wheels at a train station, and no one would help him. In her distress at this lack of response, she decided that she would never again “see a human being in need and not be able to help.”
Sarah Loguen Fraser’s decision to enter medical school was one that did not lack support: she was encouraged by her family to fight for humanity and equality, as they were continuously doing so themselves in their efforts with abolition (Goins). The Syracuse papers announced her entrance into medical school and wished her well in an era when women doctors were considered “freaks” and fought hard for respect, education and internships, and clients; there were only 2,400 total women physicians in 1880, and by the 1920s, only 65 African American women physicians were practicing (Hine 108). Dr. Loguen Fraser was committed to delivering healthcare to African Americans in order to continue the work of her family and obtain equality for all African Americans (Luft 151).
The Loguen family physician, Dr. Michael Benedict, played a pivotal role in jumpstarting her career. After being convinced of her dedication and confidence, Dr. Benedict tutored her and she was able to enroll in Syracuse University College of Medicine, where he taught some of her classes (Keeter 105).
In addition to Dr. Benedict’s help, influential factors such as the location of the medical college near her Syracuse home; connections with the trustees through the ministry; and most of all a strong personal desire to grow and advocate for women, specifically women of color, enabled Sarah Loguen Fraser to pursue the rigorous three-year course of study to earn her medical degree. Syracuse University College of Medicine provided the best medical education available at that time. It was among the first medical schools to require three years of study and rigorous examinations and to include in the curriculum clinical training at local hospitals (Annual Announcements, 1872-76). Loguen Fraser was now not only among the small group of women medical graduates in the United States, but also historians estimate that she was the fourth African American woman to earn the medical degree (Luft 149). Perhaps most important, she was the first African American, male or female, to graduate from Syracuse University College of Medicine.
After graduation, Dr. Benedict continued to mentor her. After encouraging her to apply for internships in both Boston and Philadelphia, he sent a letter of recommendation without her knowledge to a hospital in Philadelphia, and then traveled there to discuss her qualifications in person (Keeter 107). With Dr. Benedict’ s encouragement, Dr. Loguen Fraser began her internship at the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia in September 1876. Her internship was centered on pediatric-obstetric medicine but she worked with other areas of medicine as well (Marc 2). The children in the wards, due to her kindness and positive nature, called her “Miss Doc” (Goins).
Doctor Loguen served a second internship in 1878 at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. This experience in a ground-breaking hospital staffed entirely by women undoubtedly encouraged her at the beginning of her astounding medical career. The all-female staff challenged the norm of childbirth practices, leading to changes in obstetrical procedures. Dr. Loguen Fraser would go on to practice obstetrics and train midwives throughout her life.
Dr. Loguen Fraser moved to Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1879. A few years earlier, the National Medical Association had been established to represent African American physicians and their patients as a result of their exclusion from the American Medical Association. This could have been an important factor in Dr. Loguen Fraser’s move to D.C., where she opened her first practice and became a family physician to many prominent Washington families (Keeter 111). While in D.C., an admirer from Santo Domingo, Charles Fraser, courted Dr. Loguen through letters and gifts. She accepted his proposal and they married in Syracuse in 1882 before moving to Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). While still on ship waiting to debark in her new country, she took care of women and children (“Dr. Sarah Loguen Fraser and the Dominican Republic”).
Charles Fraser supported his wife’s career in an era when women stopped work after marrying. Dr. Loguen Fraser took an examination at the University of Santo Domingo and became the first female physician in Santo Domingo (Keeter 116). She worked out of Puerto Plata, where her husband had a plantation called Anacaona and a pharmacy. Medical practitioners were in short supply in Santo Domingo, and prior to Fraser’s arrival, Puerto Plata was limited to only two doctors (Keeter 117). Puerto Plata is one of largest cities on the coast of the Dominican Republic, and the major port. At the turn of the century, it was a hub for trade and additionally provided a rich agricultural climate that was ideal for farming local crops (Keeter 115). Dr. Loguen Fraser resided there with her husband from 1882 until 1894, treating women and children (women were not allowed to treat men by law), making house calls on long rides into the countryside, and giving birth to her only child, Gregoria, in 1883.
After the untimely death of her husband, the years between 1896 and 1901 were tumultuous for Dr. Loguen Fraser. In 1896, she moved back to Washington, D.C. expecting to find new opportunities for both herself and her daughter. However, in the years since she had been away from the U.S., increased discrimination and segregation had taken hold. Now she found that the color of her skin prevented her from opening a doctor’s office or enrolling Gregoria in any of the most respected schools. In an effort to find more opportunities for herself and her family she moved first to France, then back to Washington before finally settling in Syracuse, where Gregoria was able to attend Syracuse University and Dr. Loguen Fraser again worked as a doctor (Keeter 120, Marc).
While living in Syracuse she began to run a program out of her home in which she mentored midwives who tended to many African American women in the Syracuse area. Having a mentor like Dr. Fraser, a medical school graduate, gave midwives the skills they needed to keep an underserved community healthy.
Dr. Loguen Fraser faced some financial difficulties when she gave Lewis Douglass, her brother-in-law, $10,000 to invest for her. Douglass did not, however, invest this money. Part of the money had been meant for her daughter Gregoria, an inheritance from her father. Dr. Loguen Fraser consulted with Gregoria as to what action would be best to take and, in accordance with Gregoria’s wishes, Dr. Loguen Fraser did not press her brother-in-law or her sister for the money and ultimately the debt was never paid.
In need of funds, Dr. Loguen Fraser took the position of resident physician at the Blue Plains Industrial School for Boys in Maryland. Upon arrival at the school, instead of a medical job which was promised, she was required to be “maid, cook, and laundress for the boys” (Luft 152-153). Although Fraser was exploited at the school, she kept on caring for her family and others. When Gregoria discovered the reality of her mother’s situation, she removed her mother from the school.
After this, Dr. Loguen Fraser was able to secure a house in Washington for herself and Gregoria. While Gregoria taught music, Dr. Loguen Fraser lent her services to a Woman’s Clinic run by female doctors of color. Unfortunately, after the clinic closed, all records of the doctors’ work, including those of Dr. Loguen Fraser, were destroyed by white women doctors.
In 1926, on the 50th anniversary of her graduation from medical school, Dr. Loguen Fraser, a non-graduate of Howard University, was celebrated as a guest of honor at an alumni dinner for her advancements as an African American woman in the medical field (Keeter 122). It appears likely that her connection to Howard University developed through her involvement in the Order of the Malachites, an organization maintained by and for African American professionals such as accountants, lawyers, and physicians (Keeter 122). Aside from a brief stay in Santo Domingo to present deeds to her property after the U.S. military occupation of the island, Dr. Loguen Fraser would spend the rest of her life alongside her daughter, who would care for her mother until her death in 1933.
Dr. Loguen Fraser had embarked on a medical career to advance social justice for African Americans. Shortly after graduating, she had reflected, “My home and family have been a beacon to light the way for the poor, oppressed, and hunted of my race. The time has passed for the need of shelter, but God knows, we need to build strong and healthy bodies. To have those of my race come to me for aid—and for me to be able to give it—will be all the Heaven I want” (Goins). Dr. Sarah Loguen Fraser not only accomplished these goals—in two countries, no less—but also she helped open the doors of medicine to African American women. Her contributions to racial and gender equality in the profession and to improving healthcare delivery to underserved populations make her a pioneer who shaped American medicine as we know it today.
Acknowledgement: We would like to thank the librarians and curators who generously shared their expertise and time to make our research possible: Dr. Ida E. Jones, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University; Sarah Kozma, Onondaga Historical Association; James Capodagli, SUNY Upstate Health Sciences Library; and Michael Hunter at Warren Hunting Smith Library, Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Annual Announcement of the College of Physicians & Surgeons of the Syracuse University for the session of 1872-73. Syracuse: William L. Rose, 1872.
Annual Announcement and Catalogue of the College of Physicians & Surgeons of the Syracuse University for the session of 1874-75. Syracuse: William L. Rose, 1874.
“Dr. Sarah Loguen Fraser and the Dominican Republic: 125+ Years Later.” Syracuse: SUNY Upstate Medical University, 2012. <http://issuu.com/upstate/docs/loguen-puerto_1-6>
Fourth Annual Announcement of the College of Medicine of the Syracuse University for the session of 1875-76. Syracuse: William L. Rose, 1875.
Fifth Annual Announcement of the College of Medicine of the Syracuse University for the session of 1876-77. Syracuse: William L. Rose, 1876.
Goins, Gregoria F. "Miss Doc," book-length typescript biography of her mother, Sarah Loguen Fraser, contained in Box 36-4, Folders 51-52, of the Goins Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
Hine, Darlene Clark. “Co-Laborers in the Work of the Lord: Nineteenth-Century Black Women Physicians.” In Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835-1920. Ed. Ruth J. Abram. New York: Norton, 1985. 107-120. Print.
Keeter, Susan. "All the Heaven I Want: The Life of Dr. Sarah Loguen Fraser." In Three 19th-Century Women Doctors. By Mary K. LeClair, Justin D. White, and Susan Keeter. Syracuse: Hofmann, 2007. 87-130. Print.
Loguen Family Papers. Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, NY.
Loguen, Jermain Wesley. The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman. A Narrative of Real Life, Including Previously Uncollected Letters by Jermain W. Loguen. Syracuse, N. Y.: J. G. K. Truair & Co., 1859. Print.
Luft, Eric. “Sarah Loguen Fraser, MD (1850-1933): The Fourth African-American Woman Physician.” Journal of the National Medical Association, 2000. 149-151.
Marc, David. "Fraser, Sarah Loguen." American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press. Feb. 2000. <http://www.anb.org/articles/13/13-02676.html>
Warren-Moore, Jackie. “Upstate praises a ‘bridge.’” The Post Standard. 2 February 2000.