America’s First Black Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology Specialist

On August 13, 2020, New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai (NYEE) honored Dr. David Kearny McDonogh during its Bicentennial Anniversary Week. A trailblazing physician who practiced at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in 1800s– Dr. McDonogh was America’s first African American Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology specialist and protégé of NYEE’s founder Dr. John Kearny Rogers. A painting of Dr. McDonogh, called Tribute to David Kearny McDonogh, MD, was created by Leroy Campbell and was commissioned and donated to NYEE by Dr. Daniel and Marjorie Laroche. It is a moving tribute to not only Dr. McDonogh, but to the spirit of dignity, justice, and resilience that lives in us all. It will be on permanent display in NYEE’s new waiting room to honor Dr. McDonogh’s legacy and contributions to institution.

Below is a chapter from NYEE’s history book, A Vision of Hope: The 200-Year History of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary 1820 – 2020, detailing the life, struggles, and achievements of this remarkable individual.

Rising Above Brutality: Celebrating the Life of an America Iconoclast

Dr. David Kearny McDonogh (1821-1893)

"That there exists in the Breast of the White Man an inveterate hatred against the Black Man; and the very name of Negro—the very thought that he is endeavoring to raise himself above the groveling elements of Brutality—draws that hatred to a focus which radiated that nefarious past, called Prejudice…"
—Dr. David Kearny McDonogh, 1844

These passionate, impenitent words eloquently capture the lifelong struggle of Dr. David Kearny McDonogh, America’s first African American ophthalmologist. He was born in New Orleans in 1821, the "property" of John McDonogh, one of Louisiana’s richest and largest landowners. Slave trader and owner of more than 500 slaves, John McDonogh was also a deeply religious man who, after suffering a crisis of conscience, became involved in the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1825.ii Founded by Robert Finley, a New Jersey Presbyterian minister in 1816, the ACS advocated the re-turn of freed slaves to Africa and was involved in establishing a founding colony in Liberia, ideas that the troubled John McDonogh came to embrace.

Over time, the Louisiana planter took the ACS’s repatriation plan a step further by allowing some of his slaves to be-come literate and crafting a scheme whereby they could purchase their freedom on an installment plan with one non-negotiable proviso: "It is your freedom in Liberia that I contract you," John McDonogh stated unapologetically, "for I would never con-sent to give freedom to a single individual among you to remain on the same soil with the white man." Two of John McDonogh’s slaves, David and Washington, showed particular promise. And, in 1838, John McDonogh made an extraordinary decision to send the pair to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, a "free state," ostensibly to pre-pare them for their future missionary work in Liberia.

John McDonogh convinced Senator Walter Lowrie, his friend and a strong anti-slavery activist from Missouri, to act as the legal guardian to the two "ex-slaves" while matriculating. David McDonogh, who, like Washington, ad-opted his owner’s surname, was the more academically inclined. He was only 19 when he began his first term at Lafayette, where he faced yet another rude awakening: As a former slave and by virtue of his color, he was forced to take classes and meals apart from his classmates. Al-though deeply aggrieved, he strategically smothered his anger. Even if he were a "free man" in Pennsylvania, his former master had only to alert mercenary slave catchers and the aspiring student could be rounded up and sent back to the McDonogh plantation in chains.

In the shadow of this terrifying threat, David McDonogh persisted. While in his junior year in 1841, he became interested in medicine and sought John McDonogh’s permission to apprentice himself to Hugh H. Abernathy, an Easton doctor. McDonogh begrudgingly agreed to the request. Washington McDonogh left Lafayette College for Liberia before graduation in 1842, where he joined approximately 80 recently arrived former slaves from the McDonogh plantation. But David McDonogh remained behind and, shortly thereafter, informed his former master of his intention to study medicine, contract or no contract. Fed up and infuriated, John McDonogh cut his ties to David, but left Senator Lowrie to exercise his own judgment as to whether to support David through to graduation. Which, Senator Lowrie apparently did.

Despite the daunting challenge, David McDonogh became Lafayette College’s first African American graduate in 1844. He applied to several New York medical schools, and was roundly rejected by them all, until he made contact with the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary’s cofounder Rodgers, possibly through the intercession of Senator Lowrie. In New York, under Rodgers’s mentorship, the aspiring physician attended classes, but was never officially enrolled in Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons from 1844 to 1847. Tragically, upon graduation, the college refused to award him a diploma. Nevertheless, with Rodgers’s continuing support, McDonogh served on the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary’s staff as a specialist in diseases of the eye for 11 years and on New York Hospital’s for two, where he earned the respect of New York’s medical establishment, which never failed to regard him as a full-fledged medical doctor. When Rodgers died in 1850, McDonogh took "Kearny" as his middle name, to honor the man who had opened doors when all others had been shut.

During this time, McDonogh began a private practice on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village and joined with Frederick Douglass in abolitionist and worker’s rights causes. He married Elizabeth Van Wagner, had three children, and settled in Newark, New Jersey. In 1875, he was awarded a medical degree from the Eclectic Medical College of New York, where he also became a faculty member. In 1893, at age 72, McDonogh died in his Newark home and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York. Five years following his death and in honor of his achievements, the McDonough [sic] Memorial Hospital was opened on West 41st Street, offering medical education and clinical care to men and women of all races. It hired staff and admitted patients regard-less of race and was the first medical institution with a charter to train black women as nurses. Regrettably, the hospital survived for less than a decade. A second McDonough [sic] Hospital was proposed in the early part of the 20th century, but after a spectator-packed kickoff ceremony on Fifth Avenue, was never built.

But that is hardly the end of McDonogh’s story. "My interest in Dr. David K. McDonogh began as an innocent inquiry about an ophthalmologist who was a freed slave and who graduated from Lafayette College, which was also my alma mater," said Dr. Richard In 2008, Koplin and Diane Windham Shaw, director of special collections & college archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College, joined forces to breathe life back into McDonogh’s forgotten biography. One result of Koplin and Shaw’s painstaking research was the creation of the McDonogh Society of Lafayette College and the Dr. David Kearny McDonogh Scholarship in Ophthalmology/ENT. Inaugurated on November 2, 2016, at the National Medical Fellowship awards held in Harlem, New York, the scholarship is dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented African American and Latinx physicians in ophthalmology/ENT programs.

Another result of Koplin and Shaw’s mission to re-store McDonogh’s rightful place in medical history came in early 2017, after they approached the Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, previously the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, proposing that McDonogh be awarded the medical degree he had been denied in 1847. The institution agreed and, as part of its May 2018 commencement exercises, Patricia Worthy, McDonogh’s great-great-grand-daughter, accepted the posthumous medical degree on his behalf. In a separate but related expression of re-mediation, the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons’ $1 million David McDonogh Memorial Scholarship was established, funded by Diana and Roy Vagelos. All measures of justice, long overdue.