Chapter 9: Pioneer African-American Physicians

by Carl Jon Denbow and Gary Edward Cordingley

from

Stories of Medicine in Athens County, Ohio

a multi-authored anthology compiled and edited by

Gary E Cordingley, MD, PhD
As might be supposed of any group of people selected by a criterion as arbitrary as race, the
first five physicians of African descent to practice medicine in Athens County, Ohio, constituted a
diverse group. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find any other commonality among these
individuals. The group includes three women and two men; four twentieth-century practitioners
and one nineteenth-century practitioner; three individuals employed by a medical school, one by
a student-health service and one in private practice; and—the most striking contrast—one who
started life as a slave and another who became dean of a medical school.

Unfortunately, in the America of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one’s racial heritage
carried enormous social implications. So it is fitting to apply the term “pioneer” to the first five
African-American citizens who found their way to Athens County in order to practice the
profession of medicine. The following accounts summarize their lives.

                                          Noah Elliott (1826–1918)

The available historical record indicates that the first African-American physician to practice in
Athens County was Dr. Noah Elliott(1), who undoubtedly earned his credentials in the time-
honored apprentice system. Dr. Elliott had a most interesting career spanning six decades, from
the 1860s until his death in 1918.

He was apparently born a slave in Greenup County, Kentucky, on March 10, 1826.(2) Thirty-four
years later, the 1860 federal census of Gallipolis, Ohio, designated his occupation as that of a
physician. During the War of Rebellion (1861–1865), he served as a hospital steward in the 26th
United States Colored Infantry.(3) This rank seems to have combined some of the functions of
modern hospital administrators, pharmacists, dentists, physicians and nurses. A website devoted
to the hospital steward explains the full scope of this rank:

    The hospital steward, serving either the Federal or Confederate Army in a regiment or
    permanent military hospital, was a non-commissioned officer who ranked above the first
    sergeant of a company. Regulations provided for one hospital steward per regiment. On
    the line of battle, the steward would assist at a dressing station or in the field hospital. On
    the march he was responsible for the hospital supplies and medicine chests. He oversaw
    the general administration of the hospital, and his duties included supervision and
    discipline of the other hospital attendants, ventilation, lighting, and heating of the hospital,
    purchasing and caring for hospital supplies, keeping hospital records, and supervision of
    food services. Other duties included maintenance of the hospital dispensary and the
    preparation and administration of prescribed medicines. He was also authorized to apply
    dressings and bandages, apply cups and leeches, extract teeth, and administer enemas
    and injections to the urethra.(4)

The 26th USCI regiment was organized at Rikers Island, N.Y., under the command of Colonel
William B. Guernsey and served under the U.S. Army’s Department of the South. The soldiers
spent a good deal of time in South Carolina and were involved in a number of engagements with
the enemy. These were recorded in the
Dyer’s Compendium:

    Reported at Beaufort, S.C., April 13, 1864, and post duty there until November 27.
    Expedition to Johns and James Islands July 2–10. Operations against Battery Pringle July
    4–9. Actions on Johns Island, July 5 and 7. Burden’s Causeway July 9. Battle of Honey Hill
    November 30. Demonstration on Charleston & Savannah Railroad December 6–9. Action
    at Devaux’s Neck December 6. Tillifinny Station December 9. McKay’s Point December 22.
    Ordered to Beaufort, S.C., January 2, 1865, and duty there until August. Mustered out
    August 28, 1865.

    Regiment lost during service 2 Officers and 28 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded
    and 3 Officers and 112 Enlisted men by disease. Total 145.(5)

The 26th was involved in some bloody fights. The expedition to Johns Island and the attempt to
take Battery Pringle are good examples. On July 7, 1864, the 26th attacked the Rebel rifle pits
with about 1,000 men. Advancing at first under the cover of woods, they came upon an open
field about 200 yards from the Rebel line. Charging across that field, they assaulted the rifle pits
frontally and captured them. Then they pursued fleeing Rebel soldiers, and it looked as if a
Union victory was at hand. However, at that point, Rebel reinforcements arrived via the 32nd
Georgia Regiment. This turned the tide of the battle, and the 26th retreated and lost the ground
they had already won. The whole engagement on Johns Island was so fierce and produced so
many casualties that it became known as “Bloody Bridge,” named for the causeway connecting
the mainland and the island.(6)

Caring for the wounded in this engagement, as well as in the others listed, provided Hospital
Steward Elliott many chances to hone his medical skills. Additionally, because disease accounted
for almost 75 percent of the 26th USCI deaths, he would have gained valuable experience in
caring for the sick as well.

Because Confederates often treated colored regiments much more harshly when they
surrendered or were captured, it must have required an extra measure of courage for an African-
American to enlist in the U.S. Army for service in the Civil War. Rather than being taken as
prisoners, they were often shot in cold blood. When taken as POWs, they were often horribly
mistreated. Their white officers fared no better, and sometimes worse.

One document in Dr. Elliott’s military pension record, which he personally signed, detailed the
different locations in which he practiced after his discharge from the United States Army.
According to this piece of written evidence, he was in Lee Township of Athens County in 1865
and 1866, and then went back to his pre-war hometown of Gallipolis from 1866 to 1874. He
returned to Lee Township in 1874, where he remained until 1884 and then moved to the City of
Athens, where he resided at the time he completed the form on April 16, 1889. Concerning all
these locations, he wrote, “My occupation has been that of a physician.” The census reports of
1870 and 1880 confirm his stated locations and profession.

Not long after moving to Athens, Dr. Elliott hosted a famous wedding at his residence at 193
West Washington Street. On August 11, 1886, Dr. Elliott’s sister-in-law Olivia Davidson married
the renowned black educator Booker T. Washington. The house where the marriage took place
still stands.

According to his pension record, Dr. Elliott himself was married twice. In an 1898 document he
identified his first wife as Mariah Hughes, who died in Ohio, but in 1915 he called her Maria
Pogue, “a slave girl” who died in Kentucky. His second wife was Mary A. Davidson, Olivia’s sister.
They were married in Oswego, New York, in 1862. Mary corresponded with Booker T.
Washington on a lifelong basis, even after her sister passed away in 1889.

Dr. Elliott died on February 2, 1918, in Columbus, where he had moved after leaving Athens
around 1890. According to his obituary in
The Columbus Evening Dispatch, he was a most
devoted physician who “maintained his practice until his illness forced him to give it up about six
weeks [prior to his death].” His passing was also noted in the
Journal of the American Medical
Association
: “Noah Elliott, Columbus, Ohio...aged 92; a colored practitioner; died at his home,
February 27, from senile debility [old age].”(7)

                          Harold Clayton Thompson III, D.O. (1948–  )

Harold Thompson III, D.O., came to Athens County to practice medicine in 1978, about 88 years
after Dr. Noah Elliott left Athens County and 60 years after his death. Dr. Thompson was born in
Chicago. After earning a B.S. at the University of Illinois in 1971, he spent a year as an
elementary school teacher before entering medical studies at the Chicago College of
Osteopathic Medicine, from which he graduated in 1976. He completed an internship year at
Interboro Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. While Dr. Thompson was the second African-American
physician to practice in the county, he was probably the first to do so who had earned a medical
school degree.

His first position was as a family practitioner in the Nelsonville Professional Building on Poplar
Street. He also worked in the emergency department of Mount Saint Mary Hospital. However, in
1979, when O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens contracted with the Ohio University College of
Osteopathic Medicine (OUCOM) to provide emergency medical coverage, he began full-time
practice there.

In 1998 Dr. Thompson took over for Dr. Frank Myers as host of
Family Health®, a two-and-a-half-
minute radio show heard daily on approximately 300 stations nationwide as well as on the U.S.
Armed Forces Radio Network. He also served as director of the OUCOM’s Center of Excellence
in Multicultural Medicine, supporting disadvantaged and underrepresented minority students with
career goals in health-care fields. Now an associate professor of emergency medicine, Dr.
Thompson still sees patients in the University Medical Associates’ urgent care clinic, located on
Ohio University’s Athens campus. He is also active in teaching medical students in both the
clinical setting and the classroom.  

                                  Doris Levonia Clowney, M.D. (1952–  )

Doris Clowney, M.D., began work at Ohio University’s Student Health Service in the Hudson
Health Center in September 1989. When she arrived there she was already experienced in
treating students, having held a similar position at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, she majored in biology at South Carolina State University,
which had been founded in 1896 as the state’s sole public college for African-Americans. After
earning a B.S. in 1974, she attended the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, where she
earned an M.D. in 1978. She completed an internal medicine residency at the Southern Illinois
University Hospitals in 1981.

According to a telephone interview with Dr. Clowney, she worked in various primary care clinics in
South Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut and in Columbus, Ohio, before winding up in Athens. At
Ohio University she found herself comfortable with the student population, though worried about
the amounts of alcohol that some consumed.

She enjoyed watching the students grow up. “I could tell the difference between those in the first
and second halves of their schooling,” she said. “The freshmen and sophomores used the
emergency room more. I was also impressed that the parents would call me a little more than in
the other places I worked. But by the time the students became juniors and seniors, they had
turned into solid, adult thinkers. They used the student health service more appropriately. And
when they were recovering from acute illnesses and needed assistance, they worked out their
own support systems. The parents started seeing them as adults, too, because they called me
less.”

Dr. Clowney found the student health service to be a fast-paced, but fun environment, and
enjoyed working with international students and staff. After clinic hours she became part of the
local religious community and took advantage of the university’s cultural life by attending theater
productions.

She encountered no racial problems during her years in Athens. “We’re at a point in time,” she
said, “when patients are accustomed to seeing people of different races in this setting.” By
contrast, her gender was at times a factor—usually a positive one—in the clinic. “Female patients
sometimes said they were glad to see a woman physician, and complimented me on that. I
worked gynecology a lot, and the students showed a more relaxed attitude with a female
provider.”

But by May 1991 she decided she preferred a larger community and moved back to Columbus,
where she worked in community-based primary care centers until the late 1990s. Subsequently,
she has been self-employed as a consultant in medical software support.

                                  Regine Neptune, D.O. (1959–  )

Regine Neptune(8) was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and arrived in New York with her family at
the age of eight, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1977. She graduated from Utica College
of Utica, N.Y., in 1981 and, while pursuing a graduate degree at Kent State University in Kent,
Ohio, attended a Summer Scholars program at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic
Medicine. Pleased with this experience, she enrolled there as a medical student in 1983. Her
education was interrupted by the birth of her daughter and she completed her studies for a D.O.
in 1988. She pursued post-graduate training at other sites in Ohio, completing an internship at
Warren General Hospital in 1989 and a surgical residency at Youngstown Osteopathic Hospital
in 1993.

In September 1993, Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine hired her as an assistant
professor of surgery. In a 1994 article in
The Ohio D.O.,(9) Dr. Neptune indicated her
acceptance of this position had been influenced by her father’s work as a teacher and her own
desire “to give some time back.” In the same article she also said why she had chosen surgery
as a career: “I was drawn to surgery because it offers decisive, immediate and, for the most part,
positive results. You can see the results in a few days. It’s rewarding and gratifying.”

She developed a busy surgical practice, operating at the O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens
as well as at Doctors Hospital of Nelsonville. She earned certification in general surgery from the
American College of Osteopathic Surgeons in 1994. Meanwhile, she served in the United States
Army Reserve from 1984 through 2000, when she received an honorable discharge with the rank
of major.

During her time at Ohio University, Dr. Neptune published three articles in medical journals. She
also received the Phi Sigma recognition for international scholarly contributions in 1998, and the
American Medical Women’s Association’s Gender Equity Award in 1997. In 1999 Dr. Neptune
concluded her professional activities in Athens County, and relocated to Santa Monica, California.
  
                                  Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O., M.S. (1942–  )

On August 1, 1993, Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O., was appointed dean of OUCOM, replacing Frank
Myers, D.O., who had announced his intention of resigning the deanship earlier in the year. Dr.
Ross-Lee brought new dynamism to the position that resulted in much change and a number of
positive initiatives that placed the school on the cutting edge of medical education innovation and
reform.

She also helped to put OUCOM on the map with her media savvy and the instant fame that her
hiring entailed. The latter was due mainly to two factors: Dr. Ross-Lee was the first African-
American woman to head a U.S. medical school, and also she came from a famous family—one
of her younger sisters being the “Motown” [Detroit] diva, Diana Ross. Within days of her arrival in
Athens, the national media were clamoring for interviews. Stories about OUCOM appeared in
prestigious media outlets such as
USA Today, Jet magazine and Ohio Magazine, as well as in
the
Cleveland Plain Dealer and The New York Times.  

The article in
USA Today was typical.(10) On one level, it was a compelling human-interest story
about a remarkable woman who had risen from humble beginnings in the inner city of Detroit to a
history-making medical school deanship. On another level, it provided an unprecedented
opportunity to explain to the public the nature and scope of osteopathic practice. Thanks to Dr.
Ross-Lee’s high media profile, millions of additional American citizens were exposed to that
message and become more knowledgeable about the osteopathic profession.

During her tenure, the college developed the Centers for Osteopathic Research and Education,
or CORE system. It became the first Osteopathic Postdoctoral Training Institute, a new system to
structure and accredit osteopathic graduate medical education. She created an independent
Department of Biomedical Sciences within the medical school to replace an integrated model
involving dual appointments that had outlived its usefulness, and she founded the Osteopathic
Heritage Health Policy Fellowship Program to prepare osteopathic physicians for leadership roles
in health policy. She was also instrumental in creating the Center of Excellence for Multicultural
Medicine, the only such federally funded center in Ohio and the only one at an osteopathic
college nationwide.

Dr. Ross-Lee resigned to become vice-president of health sciences and medical affairs at the
New York Institute of Technology, effective December 31, 2000.

In April 2005, during Minority Health Month, Dr. Ross-Lee returned to Athens in order to speak to
the OUCOM community about health disparities in our society and their roots in American history.
She concluded that the best hope for ending these disparities is the current generation of
medical students.

In August 2005, Dr. Ross-Lee again returned to campus in order to accept OUCOM’s highest
honor—the Phillips Medal of Public Service. Her Phillips Medal citation listed the many innovative
changes that she had brought to OUCOM, the decade she spent as a family physician in her
hometown of Detroit, and her lifelong commitment to helping improve the health status of
vulnerable and underserved populations.  

                                                  
Chapter Notes

1. In some documents the last name was spelled “Elliot,” but because he signed his pension
documents as “Elliott,” this form was used throughout the chapter.

2. Certificate of Death, Board of Health, Columbus, Ohio, April 16, 1918 (No. 327, District No.
392, Primary Registration District No. 8187, Registered No. 688).  

3. Pension File F11-891564E, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

4. “Hospital Stewards: who they were and what they did,” (http://www.geocities.
com/hospital_steward/WhoAndWhat), 2005.

5. Frederick H. Dyer.
A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. Des Moines, Iowa: The Dyer
Publishing Company, 1908, pp. 1727–1728.  

6. Ted Banta, “Bloody Bridge or The Battle for Burdens Causeway,” (http://www.awod.
com/gallery/probono/cwchas/bloodbr.html), composed Apr. 25, 1996.

7. “Nearly 92 years old; Dr. Noah Elliott, colored physician in Columbus for 30 years, dies of age’
s infirmities,”
The Columbus Evening Dispatch, Feb. 27, 1918, p. 7; “Noah Elliott,” JAMA, vol. 70,
Mar. 23, 1918, p. 870.

8. During most of her time in Athens she was known as Regine Neptune-Ceran.

9. Nilanjana Roy Bardhan, “Regine Neptune-Ceran, D.O. (’88),”
The Ohio D.O., vol. 14, no. 2,
Spring/Summer 1994, pp. 5–6.

10. Leslie Miller, “Med school head puts osteopaths in the spotlight,”
USA Today, Oct. 5, 1993,
p. 10D.