Scotland's 19th-century 'good black doctor' remembered

He became known as the “Good Black Doctor” who used his 19th-century medical training at a Scots university to save hundreds of lives during war.

Sunday, 4th October 2020, 7:00 am
Dr Christopher James Davis, the first Black graduate of Aberdeen  University. PIC: Aberdeen University.
Dr Christopher James Davis, the first Black graduate of Aberdeen University. PIC: Aberdeen University.

The little-known achievements of Dr Christopher James Davis are being celebrated during Black History Month by Aberdeen University, where he enrolled in 1869 and became the first Black graduate .

The life of Nathaniel King, the son of a West African slave who studied medicine at Aberdeen between 1873 and 1876, is also being remembered.

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Originally from a family of cane and aloe farmers in Barbados, Davis arrived in the North East after a spell in London. A staunch Christian evangelist, there are accounts of him holding sermons at his kitchen table in a flat in the city’s Union Street with it also known he preached in Dunoon.

Nathaniel King, pictured third from left, who attended Aberdeen University between 1873 and 1876 and was the son of a West African slave. He is the university's first graduate of African descent. PIC: Courtesy of Between the Covers-Rare Books, Inc., New Jersey.

Davis excelled at his studies in Aberdeen, winning a watch for his efforts. It is known he sold the piece to buy food for the victims of the Franco Prussian war, with the doctor spending the last year of his life in Ardennes tending to the sick. It was here he contracted small pox and died in 1870, aged 28.

Rob Donelson, director for alumni relations, described Dr Davis as one of the university’s most “remarkable graduates.”

He added: “His achievements during his short life were astonishing for anyone but are all the more inspiring when we consider the additional barriers he must have faced because of his race.

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“He excelled as a student, winning a watch as a prize for his academic work. To learn that he then sold this to pay for food for the starving is incredibly humbling.”

Dr Davis, originally from Barbados, made his mark on Aberdeen at the time the city was undergoing a rapid expansion giving its booming business in fishing and exports.

The local press was busy with advertisements for assisted passage to New Zealand and Temperance movement picnics. Court cases featured night poachers, wife beaters and thieves.

The student took courses in practical anatomy, surgery and midwifery and built upon his training at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, where he won a string of academic prizes and scholarships.

HIs time spent helping the city’s destitute was also noticed, although the humble Barbadian tried to keep his good work from going unnoticed as far as possible.

A report in the Aberdeen Free Press, who described him as “a blithe handsome-looking man, with exceedingly frank and affable manners”, said: " He took a very earnest and active interest in the welfare of the poor and degraded classes, during the time of his residence here as a medical student; and we know from thoroughly impartial testimony, was the means of doing a great deal of good.

“He did all of this without in the slightest manner obtruding himself upon the notice of the public; and many a good deed , which deserved to be proclaimed, was kept secret at his own desire”.

By 1870, Dr Davis was offering his services in Sedan in Ardennes where fierce fighting between the French and the Germans had led to famine, fever and dysentery.After finding an ambulance in a filthy state and equipped only with a bottle of brandy and two lemons , Dr Davis put it in “perfect order” using his “untiring energy”, according to accounts.Dr Davis also set up soup kitchens at Port Mangis and Balan in a bid to relieve the hunger of the region’s peasantry.

When there was insufficient soup for all who needed it, Davis ‘took the watch out of his pocket which he had gained as a prize at College; giving that to be sold, rather than any of the starving people should go away without relief’, one account said.

After his death in France from smallpox in August 1870, The Lancet ran an obituary titled ‘Le Bon Docteur Noir’ (The Good Black Doctor) paying tribute to his 'accomplished noble work’ . His funeral was attended by French, Germans, English and the Prussian Military and the gates of Sedan were thrown open in his honour.

Meanwhile, university student Nathaniel King, the first Aberdeen graduate of African descent, arrived in the North East in 1873 for three years of medical study. He may have been influenced by colonial adminstrater Sir Samuel Rowe, a former Aberdeen student, to make his way to the North East with medical degrees at Scottish universities greatly coveted at the time, said Dr Richard Anderson, of the university’s history department.

On October 8, Dr Anderson will deliver an online lecture on King and his father, Thomas, who was taken on a slave ship from Lagos to Sierra Leone in 1825 and who went on to become a missionary and linguist.

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