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A Black History Month factoid I'll bet anything you don't know.

I'm always amazed at all the things I was never taught in school about black history. But image my surprise when I discovered how much I wasn't taught about my own family history!! Some of the gaps may never be filled in, given the history of black people in America. But there's one I learned less than a decade ago. (Thank you cousin, Leroy T. Barnes, who shared most of this with me.)

My grandfather (my father's father), William Harry Barnes, was born in Philadelphia in 1887, to George Washington Barnes and Eliza Webb Barnes. George was born into slavery on a plantation near Lynchburg, Virginia. One night, long before Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, George decided he'd had enough of slavery, and headed in a direction he believed to be north, settling in Philadelphia. He knew people were judged by their appearance, so, wanting to be taken for a gentleman, he ordered a tuxedo, purchased a cane and was never seen without either. He married Eliza, whose father, a Delaware slave, had bought his family's freedom, then walked north. George worked in various trades such as carpentry, but there was little money.

Their only son, William Harry Barnes, "strong willed and unbreakable", decided long before high school he would become a doctor, despite being teased constantly for his habit of studying late into the night by a kerosene lamp (which could be clearly seen from the window). My father, also a doctor, an internist, would always remind us of that, noting we should be grateful for desks, electric lamps and parents who supported education. William Harry worked newspaper routes, in hotels and in a jewelry story before and after school to support his studies. Sadly, lacking money for trolley fare, he walked the 8 miles round trip to school, which gave him a lifelong "cheap" streak, his sons grew to hate. (My father reports he would give them a dime for the street car, expecting them to ride one way, walk home and return a nickel.)

William Harry took and passed the scholarship examination for entry into the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, the first African American to receive this coveted four-year scholarship.

He graduated in 1912, completed an internship in otolaryngology (ear nose and throat) and began practice. In 1922, he announced he would only take Ear Nose and Throat referrals, no longer doing any general practice. Now the first specialty board, opthalmology (eye) had only been created in 1916. So any physician, but especially a black one, declaring a practice limited to one specialty was unheard of.

But William Harry thrived. He wanted more advanced training in ENT. As that was unavailable to him in the United States (Jim Crow), in 1924, he went Paris, studying at the Universities of Paris and Bordeaux with world renowned specialists. (Yes, means he had to learn and speak fluent French!)

On his return, he was the first Black physician in the country to master the bronchoscope, a groundbreaking instrument to visualize the airways and lungs.

In 1927, he became the first African American Board-certified in any medical specialty. He was a progressive innovator and went on to invent the hypophyscope, for visualizing the pituitary gland through the sphenoid sinus (looking into the brain), devise a medical record system, and modify the operative procedures for tonsillectomy and myringotomy (surgical incision into the eardrum to relieve pressure or drain fluid).

He was appointed an original member of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, where he gained respect and admiration for his honesty and dedication to providing good housing for people of Philadelphia, especially the Negro population. He fought to ensure a just proportion of housing for Negroes, and insisted on integration in those projects.

Ironically, as my father had 3 daughters, William Harry had 5 sons, W. Harry, the oldest became a mortician (safe job with longevity, always in demand), my father, Lloyd T, a doctor, Ralph W. who trained as an architect but found meaningful employment as an industrial designer, Leroy T (cuz Leroy's dad) a radiologist (yes! what's that about apples and trees) who became Chief of Radiology at Kaiser in Bellflower, CA and Carl L., a Professor of Sociology.

Now for the surprise:

Yes! He removed W.E.B. Dubois tonsils!!! For $100, the 2018 equivalent of $1442, or about a third the insurance billing of today. And evidently, Dubois kept the bill! (And if you're noting those limited office hours, his days were spent operating, so his 6 day a week schedule was a minimum of 12 working hours!)

Guess it makes sense. William Harry became president of the National Medical Society (Black Physicians), created the Society for the Promotion of Negro Specialist in Medicine (S.P.N.S.M), whose mission was to stimulate, encourage, assist and promote the development of specialists among the Negro medical profession. He became politically active.

According to William Harry, nothing was impossible. Hard work and study were the only requisites for success. "Failure is from within." Guess my father and I both drank from that well!

Sadly, William Harry died from complications of paraplegia in January 1945, after sustaining a spinal cord injury and paraplegia in 1943. Here's where it gets really painful (Thank you, Leroy T, Jr for the history):

The second thing I only discovered this year, thanks to a 1955 memorial article in the Journal of the National Medical Association NMA by the renouned, black physical anthropologist, William Montague Cobb.

But first, a small detour in honor of Black History Month. Cobb's life work was pioneering, and deserves mention here. His specialty: "studying the concept of race and the negative impact it has on communities of color." "The tipping point for Cobb’s initial interest in Anthropology came from a book of the animal kingdom that his grandfather owned. In this book, there were illustrations of human beings separated by race, but were illustrated with what Cobb called “equal dignity.” This instigated a pondering on the concept of race, as the same type of “equal dignity” was not granted in the society that surrounded Cobb’s life." (from the Wiki link above.)

The surprise: William Harry had a hemorrhagic stroke at age 50! Unlike me, he was hypertensive, but like me, he recovered and returned to the practice of medicine. Would it have helped me to know the family history?? Doubt it, because other than avoiding stress, there were not any lifestyle changes I could have made that would have decreased my risk. But I'd have liked to have known.

Maybe there's something waiting for you, too, to discover about your family!

May Black History Month be filled with discovery for you.

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