First African American Graduate of Yale School Of Medicine Honored With New Scholarship and Remembered During Black History Month

Yale School of Medicine has established the Creed/Patton/Steele Scholarship Fund, which recognizes the importance of diversity in graduate and professional education, and honors the achievements of Courtlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, M.D., the first African American to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine.

The scholarship campaign, initiated with gifts by alumnus, Robert E. Steele, M.P.H., 1971; Ph.D., 1975, is designed to help recruit and support outstanding students from underrepresented groups entering the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine. Other scholarship initiatives include creating tuition-free Public Health Opportunity Scholarships; developing a new summer academic enrichment program for undergraduate and high school students funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and adopting a statement of principle by the faculty to make cultural diversity a priority. Once fully endowed and named, the scholarship will be the first of its kind created by alumni and friends of EPH.

“The amount of scholarship assistance for MPH students at Yale affects the school’s ability to recruit students to the program and also affects the career choices students make when they graduate,” said Elaine Anderson, director of alumni and community affairs at EPH. “Dr. Steele’s gift challenges alumni and friends of the school to join in meeting a common goal: to endow a scholarship that will enable students from underrepresented groups to attend Yale.”

Creed’s attendance at Yale came on the heels of the Connecticut Assembly’s decision to remove references to race in the state’s constitution in 1846. In 1854, the climate in the state and at Yale and its medical institution was favorable when he became the first African American to officially register and study at Yale.

Twenty years earlier, a Connecticut law prohibiting out-of-state African Americans from attending any Connecticut school without permission from the town, kept James W.C. Pennington of New York from officially enrolling in Yale’s Divinity School. He was allowed to attend classes but left without a degree. He went on to receive international praise as a scholar and to accept an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg.

As a life long New Haven resident, Creed was not subject to the law that prevented Pennington from enrolling at Yale. He was the son of John Creed, a steward at Yale, and Vashti Duplex Creed, the first African American teacher in New Haven. His parents had named him for Courtlandt Van Rensselaer, friend and classmate of Yale President Dwight Woolsey, Dean Charles Hooker and Reverend Leonard Bacon, a member of the Yale Corporation.

After completing three years of study and researching and writing a thesis, Creed took his oral examinations before representatives of the Connecticut Medical Society, the faculty of the Medical School and President Woolsey. On January 15-16, 1857 he received the M.D. with 10 other young men. His thesis, “On the Blood,” dealt with the chemistry and physiology of blood in health and sickness.

After graduation, Creed opened an office on Chapel Street in New Haven and developed a prosperous practice. According to Creed historian Curtis Patton, professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Epidemiology and Public Health, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Creed wrote to the governor of Connecticut requesting a commission to serve as a surgeon in the state militia, but was refused because of his race. As the war progressed, the need for African Americans to further the Union cause became clear and the governor issued a call to arms to African American men in 1863. Creed wrote to the governor again, this time to thank him, declaring, “On every side we behold colored sons rallying to the sound of Liberty and Union.” He enlisted in 1864 and was appointed acting surgeon of the 30th Connecticut Volunteers, a company of African Americans.

After the war, Creed returned to his New Haven practice. Over the years, he was featured in New York Times articles, including one on the shooting of President Garfield. Doctors did not want to operate on the wounded President until they could locate the bullet. Creed was on the list of several prominent physicians that The White House contacted for suggestions on how to find the bullet. President Garfield died of blood poisoning in 1881 before the bullet could be found.

Another New York Times article highlighted Creed’s forensic expertise in helping to solve the murder of a young New Haven woman who had been poisoned with arsenic. Two local boys were eventually arrested for the crime. “Arsenic Under the Elms: Murder in Victorian New Haven,” a recent novel by Virginia McConnell, is based on those events.

After a very challenging life and career, Creed died in New Haven on August 8, 1900 at age 65.

Following in Creed’s footsteps, Edward A. Bouchet, B.A. 1874, Ph.D., 1876, was the first African American undergraduate at Yale College and the first to earn a Ph.D. from an American university, the sixth Ph.D. ever earned in the nation.

“While remaining a part of the powerful black culture of learning and service they brought with them,” said Curtis Patton, “African American students tolerated peculiar arrangements at Yale and other institutions in the nineteenth century. They refined their talents, finished courses of study on time, and on occasion they departed with degrees along with a few abiding bonds and great memories. With these in their minds and in their hearts, they moved on with wonder and grace to witness new possibilities for themselves, their communities and their nation.”

To celebrate Creed’s contributions to health in New Haven and among Civil War soldiers, the Creed Community Health Conference, “Partners In Health and In Sickness, New Haven and Yale,” will take place on Saturday, February 17 from 12 to 6 p.m. in Winslow Auditorium, 60 College Street. The conference will highlight current collaborations between Yale and the New Haven community to enhance Medical Center research, diagnoses, treatment and prevention efforts to eliminate city health disparities.

The Creed/Patton/Steele Scholarship Fund goal is $100,000 and currently has $58,000. For more information about the scholarship or to make contributions, please contact Alison Bonds at 203-785-5577 or by e-mail, alison.bonds@yale.edu.

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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326