The History and Impact of Queen's Ban on Black Medical Students
By: Chloe Fine
In recent years, thanks to the extensive archival research of Queen’s University PHD student Edward Thomas, the history and circumstances of Queen’s University’s Black medical student ban has been brought to the attention of the public and Queen’s community. Thomas wrote on the ban in 2018, the one-hundredth anniversary of Queen’s barring entry into the medical school for Black students. Thomas not only brought Queen’s dark past of racial inequality to light, but also the fact that this ban had never actually been formally redacted by the university. The discovery sparked an insurgence of interest in the historical event. Learning about the ban has been cause for many questions surrounding why was this ban enacted? What happened to the Black students who were in the program? And notably, where does this event fit within the larger history of Black students’ experience at the Queen’s Medical school? The answers to these questions require an understanding of some critical events within the history of medical education in North America.
Medical education at Queen’s started in 1854 when the Faculty of Medicine was first established. The faculty was created as a part of a trend that occurred in the last half of the nineteenth century when a wave of medical schools were established across the Western North. This development reflected Western medicine becoming more consistently convinced of the benefits of clinical academic instruction as opposed to the historic practice of medical training occurring through apprenticeship and self-study. More and more prospective doctors started choosing to qualify for their medical certification by attending University programs. By the end of the nineteenth-century certification as a doctor through apprenticeship, supervision and experience had dramatically fallen out of favour within the medical community.
The admission of Black medical students at Queen’s followed this shift from practical training to formal academic instruction. The First Black medical student was admitted to the Faculty of Medicine in 1906. A consistent albeit it, small, number of Black students continued to be admitted and successfully graduated with degrees in medicine until the 1918 ban. While Black medical students were at Queen’s, they were active members of the student body. Black medical students were elected members in student government and other associations on campus and continued to be admitted into the Faculty of Medicine and proceeded to graduate with medical degrees. Prior to 1918, there is nothing to suggest that Black medical students were considered a controversial part of the Queen’s community. Unfortunately, this acceptance was not a universal sentiment within the broader medical community.
Queen’s Faculty of Medicine was not the only program at the time to begin admitting Black students. By 1900, many medical schools across North America had opened admission to Black applicants. This change was viewed negatively by some within the field of medicine, including certain individuals of great notoriety. In 1910, a report by Abraham Flexner came out as an analysis of medical education in North America. The report, sponsored by the Carnegie foundation, purported to be an analysis of the quality of education offered by each medical school in North America.
Flexner considered Johns Hopkins University to represent the ideal medical school and evaluated every other medical school with reference to how closely that medical school compared to Johns Hopkins. John Hopkins at this time did not admit Black students and would not until 1946. Flexner actually considered this discriminatory policy a key element of what made Johns Hopkins so admirable to him. When assessing Canadian medical schools, Flexner rated McGill University and the University of Toronto as exemplary. One of his key criteria was “standards of admissions.” Schools that admitted racial minorities, women and individuals from lower-income backgrounds received scathing reviews by Flexner on the basis that the acceptance of these student demographics was detrimental to the schools’ entire educational programs. Schools that accepted Black students received universally lower ratings than universities such as the University of Toronto and McGill that had discriminatory admissions. Queen’s was one of the schools which faced this backlash and was rated as merely tolerable.
The Flexner report had an enormous impact throughout the North American medical field and dramatically influenced a university’s reputation to the extent that a failing review could damn a school to failure. As medical education became more regularized, influential “standards” became even more impactful. Flexner’s “standard” that admitting Black students degraded the quality of a university’s medical program spread to become a “standard” among all governing bodies of medical education. As a result, there were tangible negative consequences to universities that admitted Black students to study medicine unsegregated from White students. Following the Flexner report, Queen’s regularly received “C” ratings from the American Medical Association who at the time unofficially favoured “racial segregation policies.” These discouraging ratings sparked discussion amongst the faculty about whether Queen’s should ban Black students from their medical program, however, that discussion was postponed during WWI when it was otherwise difficult to attract students.
The Black student ban was first proposed in 1918 by J.C Connell, the dean of medicine at the time, and Dr. James Third. The rationale they presented for the ban was that Kingston citizens and returning soldiers wouldn’t tolerate Black students in hospitals. They argued that this resistance would result in Black medical students having inadequate clinical instruction compared to White students. However, the rationale that the faculty had to ban Black students because of community discrimination, while not challenged at the time, was contrary to the actual experience of Black medical students. At the time this ban was being discussed, Queen’s had had Black medical students for 12 years and graduated over 30 students. These graduated Black students worked in hospital for Kingston patients just as White doctors and had all previously gained enough experience, without recorded incident, to receive their diploma. The influx of medical aid needed with injured soldiers being sent to Kingston, if anything, had provided more opportunities for clinical experience. In Connell’s “Word from the dean” in the 1918 Tricolour yearbook, he specifically declared that because of that increased medical “it is beyond comparison the best-trained class that has been graduated [by] Queen’s”. There were 15 Black students in the medical program that year.
It was also 1918 when the ban was passed. Not only did the ban prevent Black students from enrolling, but the ban also had a dramatic impact on those Black students who were currently enrolled and had been successfully progressing toward their degrees. While they could not be immediately barred from finishing their degree, they were strongly encouraged by all faculty to immediately leave and attempt to finish their studies elsewhere. The administration had promised to search for positions in other medical programs for these students but there is no evidence this was ever done by the university. The ban immediately ended the medical careers of two upper-year students who were strong academics and in good standing with the university. A large portion of the Black student body left Queen’s once the ban was instituted. Eight of the Black students who were already in training and close to graduating fought to be able to complete their studies and a few were successful. This was an exceptionally difficult and draining task as the ban being fueled racism amongst the student body. Black students were threatened and mocked. There was a particularly abhorrent event in which a group of students put on a minstrel show following the announcement of the ban. The show was recognized by the Queen’s and Kingston community as a reflection of the increased hostility growing in the student body, with multiple articles and letters to the journal being published about the incident in the Queen’s journal. However, it is notable that this show didn’t precede the ban, but followed it.
Some of the Black medical students formerly at Queens went on to complete their medical degrees and have successful careers in medicine. For the majority, this was the end of their careers. This regression towards segregation did achieve what the Queen’s Faculty desired as the first time the Faculty of Medicine was rated by the American Medical Association after the ban, they received a “B”. The banning of Black students was the only substantial change to the Queen’s medical program between when they had been previously rated a “C” and their new improved score. The policy of Queen’s barring of Black students from the medical program persisted for decades. The next time a Black student would be admitted was in 1966 and Black students only became a consistent demographic in enrollment again after 1980.
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