Professor Heather Butts Elevates Black History

February 13, 2023

Heather Butts, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management, first encountered Alexander Thomas Augusta as a master’s student in public health, coming across his story while researching a paper on the health of African-American soldiers in the Civil War. Right away, she was captivated by the magnitude of Augusta’s accomplishments: the first Black surgeon commissioned in the Union Army during the Civil War and the first Black professor of medicine in the United States. Yet, Augusta had largely been forgotten.

In the time since she came across his story, Butts has written several scholarly papers on Augusta. His story features in her 2014 book African American Medicine in Washington, D.C.: Healing the Capital During the Civil War Era and in her Columbia Mailman course “Untold Stories in Public Health.” On February 9, Butts helped unveil a plaque in the honor of Augusta at the University of Toronto, where Augusta earned his medical degree.

Born a free man in 1825, in Norfolk, VA, Augusta learned to read in secret. As a young man, he studied medicine with private tutors while earning a living as a barber. Denied admittance to medical schools in the U.S. due to discrimination, he relocated to Toronto where he received his Bachelor of Medicine degree (with full honors) from Trinity Medical College of the University of Toronto in 1856, and until 1862 he served as the university’s hospital director.

A year later, Augusta wrote to Abraham Lincoln to request a commission in the Union Army, eventually reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After the war, he taught anatomy at Howard University. He was the first African American soldier buried in Arlington Cemetery, but he was repeatedly mistreated and underpaid by the military and was refused membership in the Washington, D.C., branch of the American Medical Association.

Augusta prominently fought racism in both Canada and the U.S. As one example, in 1864, more than 90 years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Augusta refused to ride on the outside of a Washington D.C. trolley car, as instructed by the conductor. Augusta’s letters of protest about the incident likely contributed to a law barring street car discrimination in the district.

Butts says: “Dr. Augusta's story is the story of determination, grit, and strength. He never gave up. I have been captivated by his courage, his will to relentlessly pursue his goals, and to not let anything get in his way. He was brilliant and noble. From his work at Howard University to his advocacy work and fight for racial justice, his story is one that I felt needed to be told and told as often as I could tell it.”

In recent years, Butts and Nav Persaud, a faculty member at the University of Toronto, have joined forces to advocate for greater recognition of Augusta. A 2020 article in the journal CMAJ compares the legacy of Augusta and another 19th Century-born University of Toronto-trained physician, Sir William Osler. Osler, whose racist views are well documented, has been valorized while Augusta and others like him have been overlooked.

This February, Augusta’s legacy was finally recognized by the university that trained him. Butts gave a keynote speech at an event unveiling historical plaques honoring Augusta and his mentee, Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott. The event attracted significant media attention.

Butts says: “When individuals think about heroes of the Civil War, Dr. Alexander Augusta isn‘t one of the first people who comes to mind. This tells us that there are gaps in our learning that are unnecessary, unfortunate, and not appropriate. It does a disservice to history when people don't know full and complete stories. Dr. Augusta has meaning for all of us. He shouldn't be relegated to a particular group or a specific month of the year. We should all tell his story all year long.”