Myself will be your surgeon: An archive blog for Black History Month 2022

Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor (1849-1904), born in Sierra Leone, appears in the 1871 census as a medical student in London. He would, four years later go on to father the composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor. He does not seem to appear in medical directories. However, this account from an early biography of his son notes him to have

“Secured employment as assistant to a Croydon medical man; and, as an assistant, he was successful. Working under the direction of an esteemed doctor, his patients appreciated and liked the black doctor, attracted, we are told, by his manners and his gaiety… The success he gained as assistant physician came to a period at the removal of his principal from Croydon. Taylor struggled to continue the practice, but to his astonishment found himself faced with the objection of his colour. As an assistant, he was received, was welcomed. There was, we suppose, the knowledge that he was acting under the instruction of a white man to whom appeal was always possible. As an independent doctor he was mistrusted. The patients fell away rapidly, Taylor’s means were soon exhausted, and the young man realised that he was on the verge of ruin. With no further career open to him in England, he turned his face towards West Africa, and disappeared thitherwards suddenly.”

His later career was in Sierra Leone and Gambia. Other Sierra Leoneans include Curtis Crispin Adeniyi-Jones (1876-1957) and Thaddeus Barleycorn-Barber (1865-1948). The Gold Coast produced Benjamin William Quarteyquaye Quartey-Papafio (1859-1924), Ernest James Hayford (1858-1913) and Frederick Nanka-Bruce (1878-1953).

As the Edwardian era replaced the Victorian, there is some evidence that attitudes were changing: Barbadian Charles Duncan O’Neal (1879-1936) had practised as a GP in Whitburn and Fulwell, Sunderland, for few years before 1910; Trinidadian John Alcindor (1873-1924) kept a long-lived practice in Harrow Road, Paddington from around 1910; and Jamaican-born Harold Moody (1882-1947) set up as a GP in Peckham in 1913. Guyanese James Samuel Risien Russell (1863–1939) even had a private practice in prestigious Harley Street from 1902. Did his ‘higher class’ clientele explain why he was accepted for the Royal Army Medical Corps and Alcindor was not?

Interestingly, three of these practitioners are known to have been engaged in the struggle for racial equality. Alcindor was associated with the movement of Pan-Africanism, which campaigned to improve the treatment of black people across the empire, while Moody was a founder of the League of Coloured People. O’Neal had been a member of the Independent Labour Party and in 1924 he would go on to establish the Democratic League in Barbados which campaigned to remove the property qualification for the right to vote.

Black History matters all year round. If the diversity of the current profession is not yet well captured in the archive, it is up to us all to make changes.

About the writer

Philip Milnes-Smith is a Registered Archivist. He is a Diversity and Inclusion Ally for the Archives and Records Association.