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Francis, John R.(1856–1913) - Physician, educator, Chronology

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John R. Francis was a prominent African American medical practitioner during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was also a distinguished educator. He worked in private medical practice and developed a private sanitarium to care for African Americans who lacked proper health care and sanitation in their homes. Francis saw the need for this facility since African Americans were prone to high mortality rate and shorter life spans because of their social conditions. He benevolently treated poor African Americans who were unable to pay for medical services. Although he is known as an obstetrics specialist, Francis worked as a general practitioner in the African American community. He also tried to educate African Americans to become self-reliant and self-supporting. Francis agreed with his close associate, Booker T. Washington, who proposed that African Americans should start at the level where they are in society and develop their skills in order to become self-sufficient. Francis served on several school boards and as a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Despite the color barriers in his time, he was a prominent figure in the Washington, D.C. area, and served on many committees that worked to improve the lives and community of African Americans. Francis was also an astute businessman in the medical field.

Francis was born free in Washington, D.C. in 1856, although slavery was still a prominent feature in U.S. society. His father, Richard Francis or “Uncle Dick” Francis, was a very well-known African American caterer and bartender at the famous Hancock’s Restaurant in the Senate area of the nation’s capital. One of the wealthiest African Americans in the area, Richard Francis, who had owned various properties, purchased Hancock’s in 1885. Mary E. Francis, his wife and the mother of Francis and four other children, was a housewife. The Francis family was ardent Christians who attended the Wesleyan (Presbyterian) Church. Young Francis was the only son, and his father encouraged him and his sister, Lulu, to do well in all areas and to be conscious of the needs of others. John Francis believed in developing the community in which he lived. He only left D.C. to attend post secondary institutions in Massachusetts and Michigan.

Francis received a good education because of his family’s high social status. His father was able to send him to private schools, but he also attended public schools in Washington, D. C. His quest for further education led him to Wilbraham, Massachusetts where he attended Wesleyan Academy, a Christian institution. Francis chose the medical field, and he graduated with high honors in the class of 1878 from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

At twenty-five years of age, Francis married Bettie, and the union produced five children—four boys and one girl. Their eldest son, Milton A. Francis, and John R. Francis, the second child and a graduate of Howard University, followed in their father’s footsteps and became medical doctors. The third son, Hugh R. Francis, attended Harvard where he studied law. Dorothea was the youngest child and the sole daughter. The Francis family resided at 2112 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the capital, for a long time, but Francis and his wife moved in later years to 1102 Ninth Street, North West. They had a summer home in Uniontown, Maryland, where they were Fredrick Douglass’s neighbors.

Francis believed that education was necessary for African Americans to improve their conditions in a period when most still struggled to get a quality education. He believed that education helped many African Americans to forge ahead despite the obstacles. It is also evident that he stood as a testimony in his times that African Americans could be uplifted and respected via education.

In 1886, Francis was appointed trustee of the District of Columbia’s school board; however, he resigned because of lack of support for enhancing the education of African Americans. He gained teaching experience at Washington High School and the Normal School where he made great improvements. Significantly, he implemented a nursing program at the Freedman College where African American nurses were trained. At Howard University, he was a professor of clinical obstetrics and served as a member of the committee of the board of trustees and the permanent committee on the construction of the Carnegie Library.

After graduating from medical school, Francis worked as an obstetrician in the Freedmen’s Hospital where he treated only African Americans. Francis was a humble man who tended to the sick in the streets, and he also appealed for guardianship for abandoned babies who were born in his care. In time, he became acting surgeon-in-chief of the Freedmen’s Hospital. In this position, he instituted reforms in working standards, mainly in his specialty—obstetrics. He also trained nurses, and he participated on many committees that fought for proper medical and sanitation facilities for African American communities. Francis was also a member of the local and national boards of health where he voiced the concerns of African Americans in all area of health care.

Chronology

1856

Born in Washington, D.C.

1878

Graduates with honors from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

1881

Marries Bettie

1887

Appointed member of the District of Columbia school board

1895

Serves as pallbearer at Fredrick Douglass’s funeral

1902

Serves as obstetrician at Freedmen’s Hospital, District of Columbia; teaches at Howard University in clinical obstetrics

1906

Joins District of Columbia board of health

1909

Represents District of Columbia at the National Conference of Charities and Collections; serves as member of committee for construction of Carnegie Library at Howard University

1910

Joins National Medical Association

1912

Becomes member of the board of trustees, Howard University

1913

Dies in Washington, D.C. on May 23

Upon leaving public heath care services, Francis established a private practice called the Francis Sanatorium at his former home on Pennsylvania Avenue. The first of its kind in the United States, this institution offered services to poor African Americans who lived in deplorable, unhealthy conditions. Trained nurses and private care doctors rendered services in this institution, including emergency services. Patrons were treated in a medical institution that resembled a comfortable home.

Francis belonged to the upper crust of African American society. He proved that African Americans, in the height of segregation, racism, and discrimination, were able to rise above the odds, distinguish themselves, and make important contributions to society. Francis was an associate of Booker T. Washington, who was also affiliated with Howard University, and he was friends with his neighbor, Frederick Douglass. In fact, he was a pallbearer at Douglass’s funeral, and he was a guest of honor at a luncheon held for Washington on February 15, 1906. Francis was also mentioned in Washington’s book, A New Negro for a New Century .

Francis engaged in various social activities. He was a member of several social clubs and committees. He was a member of the Civic Club where he was in charge of sanitation, and he used his office to highlight the plight of African Americans in that area. When he was appointed as delegate to the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in 1909, he represented the needs of his race. He also served on ad hoc committees in a bank, where he had stocks, and the Washington Automobile Club that lobbied for better road conditions and solutions to other automobile-related problems.

Francis died, at his home, on May 23, 1913, and his funeral service was held, three days later, at Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Although Francis was educated, wealthy, and socially accepted in the upper echelon of African Americans, he used his offices and social position to lobby for the welfare of his race.

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