For over a century Dr. George Carter was thought to be the first Black graduate of Albany Medical College. But I recently discovered there was a much earlier African American graduate – Dr. Ernest Angus. He graduated from Albany Medical College in 1885, at the top of his class.
His story is wonderful and sad. Ernest Angus came to the U.S. from Antigua in 1881 at the age of 17 with other members of his family. They settled in Albany and by 1883 he was enrolled in Albany Medical College. Back then the College was located on Eagle St. about 4 blocks south of State St.
Black newspapers of the time report him working with Albany’s Dr. Thomas Elkins. Elkins was a Black man who was tutored by Albany Medical College professors in the early 1850s, but never officially became an MD, although the entire city treated him as if he was a physician. He was appointed by Albany’s Mayor Nolan to serve as a local district physician. You may know the name Elkins from Albany’s Undergrounds Railroad (UGRR). He was a member of the Vigilance Committee.
While in med school Ernest also worked for Thomas Pennington. Pennington was the son of a famous Black abolitionist, the Rev. J.W. Pennington. In 1884 Pennington owned the only pharmacy in Saratoga Springs operated by a Black man. Thomas Pennington and Thomas Elkins were the best of friends. When Pennington was in his 20s he apprenticed with Elkins, at the same time Elkins was a member of the UGRR.
Angus graduated with a College prize.
By 1886 Angus was living in New York City. Ultimately he decided to settle in Clarksville, Tenn. By then it appears only Ernest’s father had survived. (There are several burials at Albany Rural Cemetery in 1884 that appear to be his younger siblings.) Sadly, Mr. Angus died in 1887 and is buried in Clarksville. Dr. Angus married a young Black teacher from Arkansas in 1890.
His future looked bright, and he appears set to accomplish great things. In the same year his name appears as one of a group of Black physicians who are holding a convention for Black doctors in the South. At this time most southern (and some northern) Black doctors were denied admission to local medical societies. Their participation in the American Medical Association was not a thing (although it appears that a couple of Black physicians in the North were allowed to join).
Sadly, Dr. Angus contracted tuberculosis. He went to a sanitarium in Colorado Springs, but died there in 1892, barely 28 years old.
Note: In 1895 Black physicians across the country would establish their own medical association, the National Medical Association.
In 1876 the “Albany Evening Journal” newspaper ran an ad for Dr. Rachel C. Martin advertising the availability of garments for “Under Dress Reform” and electro – thermo treatments. At that time there were only three female physicians in Albany, and they all treated only women and children in the most traditional ways. Dr. Martin’s path (and her advertisement of services) seemed more than just a bit unconventional, We needed to know more about her. She was clearly a woman ahead of her time.
Rachel was born in 1819, daughter of John Cutler, a watchmaker and son of a Revolutionary War soldier, and Magadelena Goewey from an old Albany area Dutch family. She was one of four children who survived to adulthood. It seems to have been the most ordinary of families. In 1848, when Rachel was about 28, she married Joseph Martin and moved to Philadelphia. At this point her father had passed away, her sister Ann was married and her mother was living with Ann. There’s scant information about her life in Philadelphia. Her husband was listed as a sewing machine maker in that City’s 1860 directory.
In 1861 we found Rachel had left Philadelphia and about age 41ish, enrolled in the Albany State Normal School to become a teacher, one of the few jobs available to women. At that time only single or widowed women were permitted to teach. Rachel was neither.
Her husband died a year later in Philadelphia in 1862. His death notice mentions he was the son-in-law of John Cutler; Rachel isn’t mentioned. This was the same year Rachel’s mother Magdalena is died; there is no mention of Rachel in that death notice either. Something had caused a schism between Rachel and her family.
Next, we found Rachel listed as a teacher in Albany directories. In the middle 1860s she had a “select school” at 696 Broadway. Starting in 1866 we found newspaper ads for Rachel Martin’s dance classes, conducted by a variety of dancing “professors” at both the 696 Broadway (a/k/a Kinter Garden Hall) and a State St. location. In 1869 she was operating both a school in that location AND a Turkish Bath!
Rachel Martin was clearly determined to make her own way in a world where women were expected to depend on men – fathers, husbands or brothers.
In 1869 and 1870 Rachel was lecturing in Albany on “Social and Domestic Reform” and “What Woman has done and can do to establish herself” (in the Assembly Chamber of the NYS Capitol) and in surrounding counties on the issue of women’s suffrage. She was a one woman juggernaut for equal rights. In July 1870 she took the stage with Susan B. Anthony in Saratoga Springs at a woman’s suffrage convention in Congress Hall. The issue at hand was the enactment of federal legislation providing voting rights for Black men while excluding all women. In May 1870 she was again standing with Susan B, Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Apollo Hall in New York City at the Union Suffrage Convention. (Unlike Anthony and Stanton Rachel had no family supports or husband – Rachel was an anomaly.)
(In the 1870 census Rachel is identified living in Albany with an Albert Cutler, age 21, born in New York State. Another mystery. Is Albert her son? A nephew? Why the Cutler surname? In any event Albert disappears from the records never to be seen again.)
And now another plot twist. In 1871 when Rachel was in her early 50s she enrolled in the newly established New York Free Medical College for Women. (It’s clear from NYS records and newspaper reports that she played a key role in securing State legislative approval for the College.)
Who saw this coming? We did a little digging and found a possible answer. In the late 1860s and 1870 Rachel’s establishment at 696 Broadway was next door to that of Dr. Emma Burleigh* who at the time appears to have been the only female physician in Albany. It’s quite likely that Dr. Burleigh influenced Rachel’s decision to attend medical college.
In 1873 Rachel graduated from Medical College and became Dr. Martin (or “Mrs. Dr. Martin” or “Dr. Mrs. Martin” – it’s clear the world was grappling with what to call married female physicians). But rather than practice medicine she appears to have spent the next year living in Brooklyn and lecturing throughout that borough and Manhattan on behalf of the temperance and women’s suffragist movements.
By 1876 she returned to Albany and opened her own practice, specializing in women’s health issues, including undergarment reform. Dress reform was a hot topic of the time. Many physicians and feminists were trying to persuade women to abandon tightly-laced whale bone or steel-ribbed constricting corsets. (It would take another 40 years and a shortage of steel in World War I to get women to stop wearing corsets.)
In that year she lectured in Saratoga Springs on the general topic “Reform”. A Saratogian newspaper article notifying the public of the forthcoming lecture said, “The Doctor is highly spoken of by the press as a clear thinker and a good speaker”. And yet in April 1880, when Rachel became a founding member of the Albany Women’s Suffrage Society, the press singled her out and savaged her. The Argus didn’t bother referring to her as “Dr.” or even “Mrs. – massive shade for the time. At the first meeting of the Society the Argus reporter didn’t share the sentiments of the Saratogian. He refers to her “wanting in propriety” and “lack of perception”. Oh boy! She seems to have ruffled some feathers.
In the 1880s Rachel divided her time between Saratoga Springs (probably in the “Season”) and Albany, Although in 1880 she’s the second physician to register with the town of Saratoga Springs, in 1885 the town board of Saratoga Springs appointed Dr. Martin as the town nurse, rather than as a physician. (Sigh.)
Finally, about 1891 she returned to Albany and entered the Home for the Friendless (a/k/a The Guardian Society) on Clinton Ave. It was large well-appointed retirement building for older, single Protestant ladies with some funds, but without family. (In the terminology of our day, it was a continuing care community – residents turned the bulk of their assets over to the Home in exchange for a promise to be well-cared for to the end of their days.)
But there’s life left in Rachel. In her last public act in 1894 she wrote a letter to the editor of “Argus” in which she called out prominent Albany attorney Matthew Hale who had just given a major address railing against votes for women to a large anti-suffrage group. In the letter she said “.. if he (Mathew Hale) would track up the bad men as sharp as the bad women politics would not need the women as they do now.” (Smackdown.)Dr. Martin died in 1901. She’s buried in Albany Rural Cemetery Section 89 Lot 32.
But Rachel left one last mystery. Her gravestone also carries the name of James Whelply, who died in 1875. It’s a joint headstone. It took a while to sort this out, with the help of Paula Lemire, Historian at the Cemetery and Lorie Wies, Local History Librarian, Saratoga Springs Public Library.
Rachel was named in Whelply’s will and inherited money. The cemetery plot was provided for Whelply and Rachel in 1875 by the daughter of Whelply’s best friend. James Whelply was a number of years older than Rachel, an attorney who grew up in Albany who never married. You can draw your own conclusions about their relationship, but we think that at some point they were devoted lovers, which is why they share a plot and headstone.
This is the last surprise in a surprising life of a woman who marched to the beat of her own drum.
*Dr. Emma Burleigh would become a woman of great notoriety. She was born outside Utica, married young, was abandoned by her husband in England who kidnapped her children, who she never saw again. In the 1850s she graduated from a female medical college in Philadelphia. She acted as an agent for a NYC publisher who sent her to Albany to lobby the Legislature to adopt his textbooks and charts for statewide use. It appears she was quite a favorite with NYS legislators. She had a torrid affair with Benjamin Sickles, who would become well-known Civil War general and who was also notorious for killing his wife’s lover, the son of Francis Scott Key. He was not convicted, having invoked what would become known as the “insanity defense”. Emma had several children by a former classmate from her home town while living in Albany. By 1871 Dr. Burleigh was lived on Howard St. between Lodge and Eagle. In 1872 she was accused of being an abortionist (no criminal charges were brought.) In the same year her lover turned she and her children out of the Howard St. house he owned. She traveled to Utica, followed him onto a horse car, pulled a gun and attempted to shoot him. Sadly, she killed his companion. She was tried and found not guilty. She returned briefly to Albany. She lived the last years of her life, surrounded by her children, on the Jersey Shore.
Thomas Elkins was one of the most fascinating African-American men in Albany in the 19th century. He was born about 1819 in New York City. He came to Albany with his parents in the 1820s, and when in his early teens served as an apprentice to the druggist Herman Wynkoop at Wynkoop’s shop at Broadway and Maiden Lane (living in Wynkoop’s home at 14 Orange St.).*
Following his apprenticeship with Wynkoop he studied with a local dentist. (His obituary said they were associated in practice in Montreal and then Saratoga.)
Unlike other local African American men in Albany of the time Elkins was not opposed to the colonization movement. In 1847, when he was 28, he sailed to Liberia under the auspices of the Maryland Colonization Society. In 1848 Frederick Douglass’ newspaper “The North Star “reported he was also serving as a school superintendent as well as practicing dentistry.
Upon his return he entered into the study of medicine with Dr. Alden March, founder of Albany Medical College, and professor Dr. Thomas Hun. (There’s a reference in the “The North Star” to as student from Liberia, c. 1850, studying at the College – we believe that is Dr. Elkins.)
By 1850 Elkins is listed as a practicing dentist at 188 Lumber St. (now Livingston Ave.), home of his step-father, John Butler, his mother Sarah and his half-sisters. By 1852, he’s set up his own shop at 84 North Swan St., around the corner, and he’s still living at home with his mother who has become a widow. In 1855 he moved his apothecary shop to 790 Broadway (where he would remain for decades in the same general location). It was about this time he was appointed by Albany’s Mayor Nolan to be a city district physician.
It was also at this time he became politically active. Elkins is identified as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Vigilance Committee tasked with raising funds for the Underground Railroad (UGRR). During the Civil War he was appointed by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew as medical examiner for the recruits for the 54th Massachusetts “colored” regiment (you know it from the movie ‘Glory”), and the 55th regiment created to handle the overflow influx of African-American recruits.
Just after the War his mother dies and Elkins moves his residence to 67 Second St. near North Swan St. He also plunged into social and political activities. He attends the New York State Colored Convention in Albany in 1866, becomes the Vice President of the newly formed African American Literary Society (for men only), immerses himself in Republican politics (the 15th amendment granting African American men the right to votes was passed n 1870), and becomes part of a coalition to pressure the Albany Board of Education to integrate the High School. He’s an active member of the County Dental Society.
And he tinkers. Over about a decade he patents 3 inventions; the first was a quilting/ironing table The second invention was the most splendiferous commode you’ve ever seen – a veritable throne. His final patent was for the technology of one of the earliest refrigeration units (patent number 221,222 in 1879).
And over the next two decades his was a life well lived. He continues to practice, participates in the social and activities of the African –American Albany (he’s the first African –American to serve on a federal grand jury in Albany County).
Dr Elkins died in August 1900. His funeral at the Cathedral of All-Saints was thronged, and his pall bearers were the sons of Francis Van Vranken, his closest friend – a barber – who had been a member of the UGRR.
One of the newspaper obituaries makes it quite clear that, but for his race he would have become a licensed physician (although he was treated as if he was by most of Albany, including the police and the courts).
“‘Prejudice alone at his color has prevented him making a competence at his profession, as he is in the opinion of many competent to judge, one of the ablest physicians and dentists of this or any other age, either in this city or elsewhere”
*Wynkoop was related to high society of New York – the Lansings and the Gansevoorts, which probably opened doors for Elkins that would have been otherwise closed.