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Black HistoryScience & Tech

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

Seldom do I divulge that I’m a medical student, but I believe this disclosure is profound given the history and circumstances this article seeks to acknowledge. Being a medical student has blessed me with the immense privilege to effect change within the community. As one of approximately 100 black medical students in Canada, I recognise that this privilege to access medical education has only been afforded to me because my predecessors rejected their disbarment from these spaces. During the early-to-mid 20th century, blacks were excluded from MD programs in North America. Medical schools, such as McGill, the University of Toronto and Dalhousie, openly excluded and discriminated against black students and applicants for years.

The Colour Bar

In 1918, Queen’s School of Medicine implemented one such ban on the admission of black students. In their Annual Report, Queen’s characterized the colour bar as a tool not only to conserve already limited training resources, but also to remove black students from an environment where they were imperiled by racial persecution. In fact, the school imputed the colour bar to the refusal of WWII veterans to be treated by black medical students, citing a paucity of “clinical and hospital training in a community where prejudice exists.”

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

Queen’s School of Medicine (Image Source: Queen’s Gazette)

There is evidence to suggest, however, that the colour bar may have been implemented to secure funding. Schools and medical programs were allocated funding according to their ranking by the American Medical Association (AMA). It’s likely that Queen’s School of Medicine adopted racist doctrines and policies from the AMA to improve their ranking, and thereby secure more funding. According to Edward Thomas, a PhD student at Queen’s who conducted extensive research on the ban, Queen’s “C” ranking was upgraded to a “B” ranking after executing the ban.

At the time of the ban, the 15 black medical students already enrolled, were put under immense pressure to terminate their studies. Some travelled abroad to the UK to complete their medical education, while others stayed at Queen’s, in spite of the racism, mockery and social persecution to which they were subjected. Eventually, Queen’s harnessed its power and expelled the black medical students. Although the school pledged to accommodate the students at other medical institutions, it reneged on its commitment and dispossessed the students of much needed social and academic support.

Of those who discontinued their education at Queen’s, there were two students who could not secure seats at other medical institutions.  Ethelbert D.J. Bartholomew was a black medical student in his fourth year of study at the time of his expulsion. Because he was unable to complete his medical education elsewhere, he eventually found work as a sleeping car porter. In 1978, Bartholomew’s family requested an explanation from the University for his expulsion. Queen’s, however, upheld the excuse it had maintained for years – that the ban was implemented to appease WWII veterans who refused to be treated by black medical students. There is no evidence, however, to corroborate their allegation.

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

Ethelbert D.J. Bartholomew (middle) and family (Image Source: Ron Fanfair)

There are, however, graduates who did go on to accomplish remarkable feats. Simeon A. Hayes graduated from Queen’s medical program in 1920. He was a founding director of CL Financial, which was one of the largest privately-owned business conglomerates in the Caribbean. Some of the remarkable stories of these black medical students can be read here.

A Word on Flexner

The promulgation of racist doctrines and segregation in medical education seems to have been inspired and consolidated by what is now popularly known as the Flexner Report. In 1908, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching commissioned Abraham Flexner, an American educator, to examine the state of undergraduate medical education in America. In 1910, Flexner published his report, “Medical Education in the United States and Canada,” in which he highlighted his findings and recommendations for reforming medical education. In his survey, he evaluated each medical school in America according to different criteria and determined which should remain open. He believed in quality over quantity for producing the best-educated medical professionals and wanted to revise the objectives of schools from mercenary interests to the provision of quality education.

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

Abraham Flexner published “The Flexner Report”  in 1910 (Image Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

In light of his objective to refine medical education, he closed many schools, including five of the seven medical schools that accepted black students. Nonetheless, he favoured the medical education of blacks to produce black medical doctors who would serve their own community and significantly contribute to public health. Flexner recommended that medical schools focus on teaching hygiene to black students so that they could also educate the black populations they served. He surmised that blacks serving other blacks, and promoting hygiene, would protect whites from the potential spread of disease. The Flexner Report thus supported the racial segregation of blacks in medical education and may have informed the racial discrimination to which black students were subjected.

Why Should We Care?

Hindsight is usually 20/20. Certainly, there are important lessons we can learn from this episode in Canadian history. Because of the pervasiveness of racism in Canada, black medical students at Queen’s School of Medicine had little to no support once expelled.

In fact, while the University of Toronto’s The Varsity initially reprimanded the actions of Queen’s, it later published an article in its defence:

“The action of Queen’s in ceasing to train the coloured students in the Faculty of Medicine was not taken without a great deal of thought. . . . Queen’s has had many a coloured student whom she has been proud to graduate, but has found now that she has not the facilities for graduating any more. . . . Thus Queen’s . . .  asks [the coloured students] to withdraw in their own interest.”

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

At the time, The Varsity covered the story (Image Source: Wikimedia)

In a way, The Varsity seems to normalize the subjugation of black students, even attributing their expulsion to a lack of resources. There seems to have been an absence of black voice to elucidate the effect of the ban on the personal and academic lives of black students. While other institutions of education had the means to express their perspectives and opinions, the discourse was largely one-sided and unbalanced in favour of maintaining prejudicial courses of action.

The article even goes on to justify this course of action by referencing the precedent that McGill had already set with its ban on black medical students. The ubiquity of racism in Canada seems to have consolidated Queens’ actions and made it impossible for black medical students to pursue medical education elsewhere.

What Happens Next?

Edward Thomas, now Associate Director of McDonald Institute, discovered that while the university had informally abolished the practice, it had not officially rescinded the ban. It wasn’t until 2018, at the joint efforts of Thomas and Bartholomew’s family that Queen’s formally repealed the ban. On April 16th, the School of Medicine issued a formal apology for the expulsion of the 15 black medical students already enrolled at the time of the ban.

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

Edward Thomas, a PhD student at the time, extensively researched the colour bar. (Image Source: Queen’s Alumni)

Queen’s has and continues to take steps forward to redress the effects of the ban. The Dean has made a commitment to develop an exhibit to mark this history. Furthermore, as part of its curriculum and training in diversity and leadership, Queen’s has implemented a focus on this history. In the spring, the school plans to host a symposium to educate students on the effects of the ban. It has also developed an award for black medical students to address the underrepresentation of blacks in the healthcare profession.

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

Dean Richard Reznick (Image Source: Twitter)

In a blog post on Queen’s Health Sciences website, Dean Richard Reznick eloquently reflects, “As an institution, we can never undo the harm that we caused to generations of Black students, and we have to accept that our actions contributed to the inequities in the medical profession that still exist today. I hope, though, that the steps we are taking now will move the School of Medicine in the direction of greater inclusivity, diversity and equity.”

How Queen’s School of Medicine Barred Black Students for 40 Years

I agree with his sentiment. While history can not be undone, we can certainly look back at it for a reference that will inform our future. In this instance, medical education was reconditioned as a space to exclude blacks. The commitment to create and repurpose these spaces to acknowledge this history is thus profound. Hopefully, this work continues to translate into tangible solutions for improving equity across the board.

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