The short story of Nathan Francis Mossell

Nathan Francis Mossell
Nathan Francis Mossell, circa 1882

His father was a thoughtful man of few words, a man who learned to read in night school, and who went into business for himself as a brick maker, where he was known to have a strong propensity for math: he could estimate the number of bricks needed for any size contract with amazing accuracy. And his father was a righteous man. The men who worked for him never used profanity in his presence, not because he forbade it, but because they held him in such high regard.

His mother inspired Nathan and his siblings to aim high with her stories of how his grandparents overcame obstacles. Stories such as the one about his maternal grandfather who was freed as a young man, “he was useless to his master because he viciously resisted his masters attempt to bend [his] will,” or his paternal grandfather who bought his own and his wife’s freedom.

Nathan Francis Mossell came from a lineage of people who fought to overcome adversity, and he followed in their path. He entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1879 to protest from many in the student body.

“I attended the opening lecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I walked down the center aisle in the capacity-filled amphitheater to a seat very near the front. From both sides of the aisle I was accompanied by a storm of protest.”

But he persisted and in 1882, he became the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He earned second honors in his medical school class and this time around, his fellow classmates had a different reaction.

“When my name was called and I ascended the stage of the Academy of Music to receive my diploma, the students in the pit of the hall, greeted my name with almost deafening applause.”

Nathan would go on to become the first African American member of the Philadelphia County Medical Society and the founder of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP. Of his advocacy work Nathan later wrote,

“One may wonder how a physician can find so much time to champion the cause of his people. I have been no less spared from the indignities of segregation and discrimination than the non-professional colored person. In waging a fight to help free others from the infringements of Jim Crowism, I also help free myself.”

“The short story of Nathan Francis Mossell” sources: “Nathan Francis Mossell.” Penn Libraries, University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania / “In His Own Words: Nathan Francis Mossell, Penn Medicine’s First Black Graduate.” By Robert Press. Penn Medicine News. / H.D. Carns & Co.. Nathan Francis Mossell (1856-1946), M.D. 1882, portrait photograph. c. 1882. Artstor,