Charles Purvis, soldier, physician, history maker

Did you know… Charles Purvis (April 14, 1842 – December 14, 1929)?

Charles was the first black physician to attend a sitting president when he attended President James Garfield after he was shot by an assassin in 1881, and a founder of Howard University medical school.
Charles was born in Philadelphia to Robert and Harriet Purvis, who were active in the abolitionist movement. As a boy, he worked on the family farm but was able to get schooling from nearby Quakers. He was the fifth of eight children. He enjoyed reading, and made use of a neighbor’s library, sometimes taking a book out in the field with him.
At eighteen, he applied to and was accepted at Oberlin College. He completed two years and then moved to Western Reserve University medical school in Cleveland in 1864. He simultaneously served in the Union army as a nurse. Upon graduation, he became an assistant surgeon and was promoted to lieutenant. – Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. No. 247. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. p690-693.

In his new post in Washington D. C., Charles worked tirelessly to save soldiers, and was also active in civil rights for blacks. He and another black physician were recognized for their efforts, and nominated for the DC Medical Society – but they didn’t get enough votes to join. When a third black doctor was turned down for admission, Charles and his fellow African American physicians decided to create their own medical society, the National Medical Association.
Charles and Alexander T. Augustus were among the founders of Howard University Medical School. In 1858, Charles was elected a full professor of materia medica and medical jurisprudence, and later chair of the obstetrics dept.

He was a friend of Frederick Douglass, and others fighting for black civil rights. He fought against having separate black schools. During the financial panic of 1873, he managed to keep the doors of Howard Medical school open.

Charles served for many years on the faculty at Howard Medical School. In 1871, he married Ann Hathaway of Eastport, Maine, They had two children together.

On July 2, 1881, Charles was called to the White House with several other doctors, to consult and treat President Garfield. There was great difficulty in locating the assassin’s bullet, partly due to the chief physician, Willard Bliss, not allowing other doctors to search for the bullet on Garfield’s right side, where it actually lodged. Alexander Graham Bell quickly invented a metal detector to help find it, but it was only used on the left side. Endless probing with unsterilized fingers occurred, and Garfield died of infections.

Charles was surgeon-in-charge at the Freedmen’s Hospital from October 1, 1881, to 1894, the first black person in charge of a civilian hospital.

In 1898 his wife Ann died. Three years later Charles married Jennie Butman from Manchester, New Hampshire. In 1903 Charles fought Congress’ proposal to shut down Freedman’s Hospital, succeeding instead to get the District of Columbia to construct its new municipal hospital on Howard University’s grounds.

The next year Purvis passed the Massachusetts State Board exams and was admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society, just in time for his 1905 relocation to Boston, Massachusetts. In 1907 he resigned from Howard University’s medical faculty but remained on the Board of Trustees until 1926. Charles Purvis died on December 14, 1929, in Boston at the age of 87.

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