The short story of Nathan Francis Mossell

Nathan Francis Mossell
Nathan Francis Mossell, circa 1882

Nathan Francis Mossell Biography

Nathan Francis Mossell’s 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 brickmaker, where he was known to have a strong propensity for math, able to estimate the number of bricks needed for any size contract with precision. And Nathan’s 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.

Nathan’s mother inspired her son and his siblings to aim high with stories of grandparents overcoming 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.” Then there was Nathan’s paternal grandfather, who bought his and his wife’s freedom.

It was almost as though overcoming adversity was part of Nathan’s lineage. He followed in the path.

Born in Canada, raised mostly in New York, he began working part-time at age nine while still attending school. After completing high school, he attended Lincoln University and, upon graduating, was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1879. He was the first African-American student ever accepted into the program.

As Nathan started medical school, he encountered protests from many in the student body. Of the experience, he said,

“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 some students stood up for Nathan. “A student by whom I sat asked me why I did not get up and tell them, ‘go to hell.’ I replied that I was not disturbed the least bit; whereupon he jumped on the seat, turned his face to the crowd, and said in a ringing voice, ‘Go to hell! You act like a pack of D… fools.’ In response he got some applause, making me know that everyone had not participated in the first demonstration.”

Nathan worked hard and persisted, and in 1882, became the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He earned second honors in his class. At graduation, his classmates reacted differently than when he started.

“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.”

In 1888, he became the first black physician elected as a Philadelphia County Medical Society member. That same year, he started his private practice. In 1895, he helped establish the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School in West Philadelphia, where he served as chief-of-staff and medical director until retiring in 1933.

Beyond his medical career, Nathan was deeply involved in civil rights and community work. He co-founded the Philadelphia Academy of Medicine and Allied Sciences in 1900 and was a founding member and director of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in 1910.

“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.”

Nathan passed away on October 27, 1946, in Philadelphia at age 90. He was believed to be the oldest practicing black physician at the time of his death.

Notes:

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  • Story updated on November 17, 2023.
  • To cite: “The short story of Nathan Francis Mossell.” Historical Snapshots, https://historicalsnaps.com/2018/02/27/the-short-story-of-nathan-francis-mossell/

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