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The Story Of The First African-American Woman To Practice Medicine In Georgia Who Was Born Enslaved

Eliza Ann Grier. Image from National Library of Medicine

 

Eliza Ann Grier had initially wanted to become a teacher, but she grew to have an interest in the medical field. She later became the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in the state of Georgia. It took her almost six years to become a physician as she had to work while in school to pay for her school expenses.

And after getting past challenges including racial and gender discrimination to get a license to practice what she loved, her career was cut short when she passed away after just five years of medical practice.

Born enslaved in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, during the Civil War in 1864 to Emily and George Washington Grier, she and her parents were freed by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. Not much is known about Grier’s early life besides the fact that she grew up in Atlanta. She and her family moved there in 1869.

About two decades after her emancipation, she enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, with the aim to become a teacher. It took her about seven years to earn her degree in education from the university in 1891 because “she took every other year off to pick cotton and perform other work to earn her tuition to continue her studies,” according to BlackPast. Despite having to work her way through school, she was active in extracurricular activities and even served in 1890 as president of the Young Ladies Lyceum.

Ahead of her graduation from Fisk, Grier decided she wanted to become a medical doctor. She believed that following that path would make her more useful to her race than being a teacher. So she wrote to the Dean of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania asking if she could be given a chance to pursue advanced medical education there considering her race and gender and given that she had funding problems.

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In the meantime, Grier moved to Augusta, Georgia, where she taught at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute after graduating from Fisk in 1891. The Woman’s Medical College admitted her in 1893 but without financial help, so Grier had to work in between school, as she did at Fisk, to be able to pay for her studies.

In 1897 when she graduated, she was one of a small but growing number of African-American women physicians in the United States. That same year, she made headlines when she became the first African-American woman to apply for and be granted a license to practice medicine in Georgia.

“I went to Philadelphia, studied medicine hard, procured my degree, and have come back to Atlanta where I have lived all my life, to practice my profession,” she wrote in 1898 after returning to Atlanta, Georgia following her graduation and completion of her medical degree. “Some of the best white doctors in the city have welcomed me and say that they will give me an even chance in the profession. That is all I ask.”

But Grier struggled to build a private practice. According to Georgiaencyclopedia.org, “Grier and other Black physicians of this era, including Atlanta physician and pharmacist Henry Rutherford Butler, were confronted with a system of segregation and Jim Crow laws. In response, they built hospitals, formed professional societies, and created educational institutions to support themselves as well as their communities.”

Grier faced many obstacles but that didn’t stop her from continuing her mission to improve the health of her fellow African Americans in the rural South. In 1899, she moved her practice to Greenville, South Carolina, and specialized in obstetrics and gynecology there. In 1901, she contracted influenza and could not attend to patients for six weeks. She knew that could affect her practice so she sought financial help from several people including suffragist Susan B. Anthony but they all couldn’t help her.

That same year, Grier moved to Albany, Georgia where her brother, Dr. R.E. Grier, also practiced medicine. Sadly, her career was cut short as she died in 1902 at the age of 38. She was buried in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Grier may not have lived long to live her dreams but she paved the way for other Black women in her profession, and that will always be remembered.

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Written by PH

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