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Miami’s African-American Physicians – History of the James Wilson Bridges, M.D. Medical Society

The black community of South Florida has been served by black physicians since 1896, when Dr. Rivers, whose first name is lost to history, began practice in Miami, in the same year the city of Miami was chartered. Incidentally, the first person to sign the City Charter was W.H. Artson, a black laborer. Among the early pioneers were Dr. A.P.B. Holly, Dr. J.A. Butler, Dr. Solomon M. Frazier, and Dr. William B. Sawyer.

By 1931 there were at least 12 black doctors serving the Miami area. These early physicians attended to only black patients and were confined to the black area known as “Colored Town”. At first, they rode bicycles to visit their patients, later horse and buggy, then finally automobiles in the 1920’s. They often treated patients as far away as Key West to the south, and West Palm Beach to the north. These black physicians were not allowed to attend medical meetings in the white communities, and secured their post-graduate training by attending clinics and lectures at black institutions in places such as Nashville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois. Later, in the 1940’s, many attended Florida A&M College Clinics in Tallahassee, Florida. Clinic attendance was achieved usually during vacation periods.

Since the white Dade County Medical Association denied membership to black physicians, the Dade County Academy of Medicine was formed in the early 1920’s. It consisted of physicians, dentists, and pharmacists. Due to the small numbers of practitioners in each discipline, meetings were held at the member’s homes or at local restaurants. There was always a scientific and social component of the meetings.

The National Medical Association (NMA) was formed in 1895 as the result of discrimination against black physicians. The Association formed affiliations with state organizations, which in turn affiliated with local organizations. In Florida, the state affiliation was the Florida State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association. The Dade County Academy of Medicine was therefore an affiliate of the state organization. By the 1930’s and 40’s, there was a close association with societies in Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties known as the Tri-County Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Society.

One of the early problems facing black physicians, as well as black dentists and pharmacists, was a high rate of failure on the professional state board examinations. Black representation was notably absent on these boards. In 1970, Governor Reuben Askew appointed the late M. Athalie Range, a Miami mortician, Pioneer City Councilwoman, and civic leader, to the post of State Secretary for Community Affairs. The Florida State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, under the presidency of Dr. Dazelle Dean Simpson of Miami, with the dedicated help of Mrs. Range, was successful in having Dr. Charles McIntosh of Jacksonville appointed as the first black on the State Board of Medicine. Needless to say, there was decided improvement in the passing rate for black practitioners. This breakthrough was followed by appointments of blacks to the dental and pharmaceutical boards. Dr. James Wilson Bridges was one of the outstanding physicians to serve on the State Board of Medicine.

In the early 1980’s, the NMA decided to preserve its integrity as an accredited medical body (especially in its appearances before the U.S. Congress), by disaffiliating from its dental and pharmaceutical members, and become a purely medical entity. Throughout the United States, other mixed NMA associations followed suit and became independent Medical, Dental or Pharmaceutical entities. The first president of the local medical group, called the Dade County Chapter of the National Medical Association, was Herbert H. Green. Subsequent presidents have included Drs. Nelson Adams, Earl Allen, Reginald McKinney, Gershwin Blyden, Barbara Montford and  William Donnelly.

In early 2007, the group renamed itself the James Wilson Bridges, M.D. Medical Society, in honor of the first black Jackson Memorial Hospital senior resident in Obstetrics and Gynecology, first black Fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Florida, and first black president of the Dade County Medical Association.

At present we have a unique situation where one of our chapter members, Dr Nelson Adams, is the concurrent President of the National Medical Association and the Dade County Medical Association. To our knowledge, this simultaneous presidential leadership of a minority and non-minority associations has never occurred in United States medical history.

The present stage of evolution in medicine in this country and the at-risk position of minority health professionals, coupled with the increasingly obvious health care disparities, only serve to re-affirm the importance of keeping this local Society and the National Medical Association viable, strong, and status-changing forces in American medicine.

Excerpted from speech and writings of:

George A. Simpson, M.D.
November 2007