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Sophia B. Jones Charts a Course of Success for African-American Doctors

April 2016

Equality-day5Sophie Bethena Jones, M.D., a native of Chatham, Ontario, Canada, was born in 1857 to the activist family of James Munroe Jones and Emily Frances Jones. She  became a physician and the first Black faculty member at Spelman College in 1885. She also  established the College's nurse's training course before going on to practice medicine in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Kansas City.

Jones' path to Spelman began at the University of Toronto. Discouraged by the limited medical education offered female students there, she packed her bags and enrolled in the medical school at the University of Michigan where she graduated in 1885 and became the institution's first Black female doctor.

A Passion for Her Profession and the Racial Uplift of Her People

Jones had a passion for advancing public health and achieving health equity in the post-Civil War era. In 1913, she published a retrospective article titled, “Fifty Years of Negro Public Health.” Her words ring as prophetically true today as they did when she first penned them:

It is not too much to expect victory for a race, which, in fifty years, has reduced its illiteracy from an estimated percentage of 95 to one of 33.3 as given by the census figures of 1910. Let the teaching of general elementary physiology, including sex physiology, and sanitation be placed on a rational basis in all colored schools and colleges, in the hands of men and women thoroughly trained and with full knowledge of the health problems named above, and there can be little doubt that the issue of the conflict will be such a rapidly declining death rate and reduced morbidity as will astonish the civilized world."

Nina Reid-Maroney, in her article, "African Canadian Women and the New World Diaspora, (circa 1865)," says, "Sophia Jones exemplifies the way in which women followed the opportunities of higher education opening to them in the United States, and used that education as passage through and beyond the restrictions on women's public roles in late-Victorian Canada."

According to Reid-Maroney, Jones' work at Spelman on behalf of Black women's medical education, was "informed by the philosophy of 'racial uplift' shared by many of her African-American contemporaries; but the career of the highly mobile Dr. Jones was also shaped by the understanding that a wide-ranging ideological community could be as important as any other sort. Hers was an intellectual migration that in its scope was reminiscent of the black abolitionists of her father and mother's generation."

Reid-Maroney adds, "The Canadian experience was not simply a matter of escape from slavery or from the pressures of the federal Fugitive Slave Law, nor of material improvement. It was about constructing the terms of racial equality."

The University of Michigan Honors Its Accomplished Alumna

Sophia B. JonesThe U-M Medical School has established the Sophie Jones Lectureship on Infectious Diseases in honor of the school's first Black woman graduate.  In addition to the lecture series, U-M also created the Sophia B. Jones Room and established the Fitzbutler Jones Alumni Society. Representing the achievements of African-American medical students at the University of Michigan, past and present, the last names of William Henry Fitzbutler (M.D. 1872) and Sophia Bethena Jones (M.D. 1885) were chosen in 1997 for the establishment of the Fitzbutler Jones Society, an organization of African-American University of Michigan Medical School alumni and residents.

The Fitzbutler Jones Society provides medical students and alumni with financial support and opportunities for professional development by serving as mentors and encouraging philanthropy for both expendable and endowed scholarship funds. Through promoting education and training of African-American physicians and medical scientists, and thus advancing the medical research and clinical care they will provide during their careers, Fitzbutler Jones Society envisions ultimately improving the health of all African Americans.

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