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To Bear Fruit For Our Race College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences

The Continuing Health Crisis (1927-1954, Section 11)

Despite the efforts of physicians at institutions such as the Houston Negro Hospital and St. Elizabeth Hospital, African Americans still faced obstacles as both physicians and patients.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) continued to advocate for the growth of African-Americans in medicine. 

Dr. W. Montague Cobb received his medical degree from Howard University in 1929, and three years later, became the first black American to receive a doctorate in physical anthropology from Western Reserve University. In a long, distinguished career, Cobb served as chair of the anatomy department at Howard (1942-1969), as president of the National Medical Association, as the editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association (1949-1977), and as president of the NAACP (1976-1982). The author of some 600 publications, Dr. Cobb wrote two pertinent pamphlets for the NAACP regarding health care in the 1940s. 

Dr. Cobb argued that racial discrimination and segregation resulted in inequalities in healthcare and the poor general health of African Americans

In “Medical Care and the Plight of the Negro” (1947), Dr. Cobb analyzed the conditions which had led to discrepancies between the health of African Americans and white Americans. Like Emmett J. Scott and Dr. Henry Lee some thirty years earlier, Dr. Cobb worried about the poor general health of African Americans and the differences in life expectancy. He identified the racial discrimination and segregation that contributed to inequities in healthcare: professional training, hospital facilities, professional associations and societies, and prepayment medical plans.


Cobb believed that Jim Crow segregation and the fallacious “separate but equal” doctrine expressed in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) forced African American physicians to work “in a naturally dispersed professional ‘ghetto.’” 1   He lamented the poor training at the few schools available to African Americans and the lack of post-graduate training due to limitations on residency programs. In many cities, African-American patients were shunted to dilapidated hospitals turned over to black doctors only when their facilities became outdated. Discrimination in professional associations left black physicians with few chances to promote their own interests. 

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One year later Dr. Cobb and the NAACP published another pamphlet, “Progress and the Portents for the Negro in Medicine.” He applauded President Harry S. Truman’s civil rights message and the agreement of a few additional hospitals to allow African Americans into their residency programs. This second pamphlet allowed him to probe more deeply into the history of the black medical education and practice in the United States. The inadequacy of the education provided for African Americans from elementary school through college, Cobb argued, meant that many of them began medical school with some educational deficits in comparison to better prepared white students. While applauding the skills and dedication of teachers at Meharry and Howard, Cobb concluded that these underfunded and overcrowded faculties were not able to provide an equivalent education to their students. Dr. Cobb believed that the completion integration of the nation’s schools was necessary but recognized that “every attempt by adherents of the status quo will be made to block or circumvent real changes in the entrenched system of segregation.” 2


  1. W. Montague Cobb, M. D., Ph.D., “Medical Care and the Plight of the Negro,” (New York: Published by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1947). 

  2. W. Montague Cobb, M. D., Ph.D., “The Progress and Portents for The Negro In Medicine,” (New York: Published by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1948).

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