Celebrating Black History Month and Dr. Nathan Mossell

By Corrinne Fahl

Dr. Francis Nathan Mossell was the first African American to receive a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Nathan Francis Mossell, the son of Aaron and Eliza Bowers Mossell, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on July 27, 1856. Nathan's father, Aaron Mossell, was a grandson of slaves, with a great-grandfather known to have been brought from West Africa. His wife Eliza came from a free Black family that had been deported to Trinidad with other such families when she was a child; she and Aaron met after she returned to Baltimore. During the Civil War, Aaron Mossell resettled his family, now including six children, in upstate New York. Here he established a successful brick manufacture business, employing laborers of all races and providing bricks for local schools and homes, his African Methodist Episcopal church, and eventually a hotel which he himself owned. Thus it was that Nathan Francis Mossell was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on July 27, 1856.

Aaron Mossell, sr., at first had only enough resources to send his eldest son to college, Nathan's schooling became irregular when he began working in his father's brick yard at age nine. Nathan soon grew to be as strong and tall as most full-grown men; thus it was that, following the death of of his second-oldest brother, Nathan stopped going to school altogether to work full time for his father. In 1871, however, Nathan followed his brother Charles to Lincoln University where he finally had the chance to demonstrate his academic potential. After completing four years of preparatory school in three years, he went on to the complete four years in the college. At the time of his 1879 graduation from Lincoln with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Nathan Francis Mossell took second honors in his class and was awarded the Bradley Medal in Natural Science.

After graduating from Lincoln University, Nathan Mossell entered the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn he took second honors in his medical school class. After graduating in 1882, he became the most prominent of Penn's first African American students. Upon graduating, Mossell was trained first by Dr. D. Hayes Agnew in the Out-Patient Surgical Clinic of the University Hospital. Because of the difficulties Blacks then encountered in securing internships in this country, Mossell then travelled to England to complete an internship at the Guy's, Queens College and St. Thomas hospitals in London. In 1888, after his return to Philadelphia, Mossell was elected (after overcoming significant opposition on the basis of his race) to membership in the Philadelphia County Medical Society, making him the first African American physician to achieve this honor.

After opening his office at 924 Lombard Street, young Dr. Mossell quickly began to have an impact on Philadelphia medical practice and on the position of African Americans in the city and beyond. In August of 1895 he became the leading figure in the founding of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School - the second Black hospital in the United States, and one that would not only treat African American patients, but also offer interships to Black doctors and nursing training to Black women. Dr. Mossell's former Penn professors (including Agnew, Tyson, Pepper and Leidy) were among the initial contributors, and Eugene T. Hinson, M. D. 1898, was one of the hospital's African American physicians. Since its establishment of a 15-bed facility in a house at 1512 Lombard Street, Douglass Hospital has had a history of supporting the African American community in Philadelphia. In 1909, a new building with 75 beds opened at 1534 Lombard Street.  Mossell worked for over thirty-five years as the hospital's chief-of-staff and medical director, retiring in 1933. He continued his private medical practice, however, until shortly before his death in October of 1946, at the age of ninety.

Mossell's influence was felt in other ways as well. He was a co-founder of the Philadelphia Academy of Medicine and Allied Sciences (an association for African Americans in medicine) in 1900, a founder and director of the Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1910, and a member of the Niagara Movement organized by W.E.B. DuBois in 1905. During the 1880s and 1890s Mossell was one of the first to pressure for the hiring of Black professors at his alma mater Lincoln University; from 1891 into the 1940s, he pushed for the integration of Girard College. He also worked with state representative Arthur Faucett to pass a bill banning exclusion of Blacks from university housing at Penn.

Read full article on Dr. Mossell at Penn Medicine News.