By the time Louis T. Wright headed to France as an Army doctor, he was accustomed to discrimination — and accustomed to fighting it.
The son of a former slave, Wright struggled to receive a medical education on par with his white classmates at Harvard Medical School. He was one of 104 African American doctors who served the 40,000 black troops who saw combat during the war.
At home, segregation reigned. On the battlefield, men like Wright hoped they’d be viewed as skilled physicians and not racial inferiors.
On Tuesday at 6 p.m., W. Douglas Fisher and Joann Buckley will reflect on the service of these doctors at a free event at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring. Their book, “African American Doctors of World War I,” tracks the lives of the men who cared for the Army’s two black combat units.
Wright’s vision of racial equality wasn’t quite reality on the battlefield. The Army was segregated. Other than those in the two combat units, most black men who served were shunted into support roles, performing physical labor that enabled their white counterparts to fight on the front lines. Despite a shortage of doctors, black physicians could treat only black patients.
Wright and his peers saw almost unthinkable carnage. Many used innovative treatments, and many came home with serious injuries.
Although the role of African American doctors in the war has largely been overlooked, Buckley and Fisher are determined to memorialize their service. The authors note that not only did black doctors bravely serve under harsh conditions, they also made major contributions to medicine after the war.
Take Wright, who lived until 1952: Despite a gas-inhalation injury that permanently affected his lungs, he helped pioneer the use of chemotherapy, became the first African American physician on an integrated hospital staff, and challenged stereotypes about black people through his civil rights activism.