Overcoming Adversities: The Life of Dr. Rivers Frederick (1874-1954)

dr rivers frederick in surgery

Dr. Rivers Frederick, Chief Surgeon, performing surgery at Flint-Goodridge Hospital.

(Circa 1932)

Born the son of a sharecropper, Rivers Frederick spent the first twenty-six years of his life on the Drouillard Plantation in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. As one of twelve children born to George Frederick and Armantine Dalcourt, Rivers came into the world on May 22, 1874. In 1890, he left the plantation and headed to New Orleans to attend Straight University, from which he graduated four years later. His goal in life was to become a physician, so Rivers enrolled in the Medical College of New Orleans University but left after two years in 1896 for Chicago to enroll at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (now the University of  Chicago at Chicago Medical School). If he had stayed in New Orleans, he would not have been able to study in any of the city’s hospitals since black medical students were not permitted to do so.

While in Chicago, Rivers Frederick never received scholarships that were available to other students, but financed his entire education with assistance from family members and by tutoring other medical students on campus. In 1897, he not only received his M.D. but also became the first African-American to graduate from this institution.

After graduation, Rivers was one of the few American medical students of any race awarded an 18 month internship to the John B. Murphy Surgical Clinic at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Only twelve of the sixty-four graduates of Chicago’s College of Physicians & Surgeons, based on their performance in a two-day competitive examination, received such an honor that year. Dr. Frederick was one of them.

Finally, after giving it a great deal of thought, Rivers decided to come back home to Louisiana to practice medicine. It was 1899 and Louisiana now had fewer than fifty black physicians for a black population of over a half million people. He was one of the few black Southerners to get his medical education in the North and return to his native region to establish his career.

Upon returning to Pointe Coupee, he was able to establish himself as the parish physician for both blacks and whites. He soon developed a large racially mixed clientele. While Pointe Coupee’s white community was able to accept medical treatment from Dr. Frederick, his marriage to a white girl (Adele Bouie) was too much to take, and he was soon forced out of town by a hostile white community.

He then fled to Central America with his bride and became surgeon-in-chief at a small government hospital in Spanish Honduras. He contracted malaria while there and after four years returned to his home state, but this time settling in New Orleans and not Pointe Coupee. It was here that he developed a successful practice and began to get the recognition he so rightly deserved.

Upon his return, he became assistant professor of surgery at the old  Flint Medical School, then chief surgeon at the old Sarah Goodridge Hospital on Canal Street. There were but six Negro doctors in New Orleans at that time. From 1913 to 1932, he was a surgeon working for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

Finally, in 1932, when Flint-Goodridge Hospital was established, Dr. Rivers Frederick was appointed chief of surgery. In post-graduate courses conducted each year by the hospital, he taught alongside doctors from Tulane and LSU medical schools. Under Dr. Frederick, Flint-Goodridge maintained its AHA standards and he enlisted the city’s finest white physicians to practice there along with its black physicians. He would continue to serve on the staff  of Flint for more than forty years.

In spite of all his accomplishments, Dr. Frederick was denied membership in both the American College of Surgeons and the International College of Surgeons for many years because of  racism.

For years he traveled across the state, lecturing to and talking with young black doctors. He even helped one young surgeon establish himself in New Orleans by giving him an office (rent-free) for four years as he built his practice.

On November 2,1947, the Flint-Goodridge testimonial service honored Dr. Frederick for fifty years of medical practice. In 1950, Dr. Frederick stepped down as Chief of Surgery to become its Consultant in Surgery. He was awarded  the first Dillard University Alumni Achievement Award. In 1954, he received a National Medical Association Distinguished Service Award and was honored by the New Orleans Branch of the NAACP for over half a century of service to his community. After his death, Dr. Frederick would be honored posthumously when a black school in New Orleans (previously named for Jefferson Davis) was rechristened as Rivers Frederick. He would receive many other awards..too numerous to mention here.

Dr. Frederick passed away on September 2, 1954 at the very same hospital he so loved. He was 80 years old; leaving behind his widow, Eloise Clark Frederick and three children: Pearl, Lolita, and Rivers Frederick Jr…. as well as a legacy not so soon to be forgotten.

Sources:  A special thanks to Amistad Research Center. All the sources listed here were obtained from their collections. Ward, Thomas J. Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South, Little Rock: University of Arkansas, 2003; Yense, Thomas, ed. Who’s Who in Colored America 1938-1940; The New Orleans Item, 2 September 1954; Photo of  Dr. Rivers Frederick performing surgery at Flint-Goodridge Hospital (circa 1932), Courtesy of the Amistad Research Center.

Lolita V. Cherrie

 

5 thoughts on “Overcoming Adversities: The Life of Dr. Rivers Frederick (1874-1954)

  1. Hi Janice and Lolita,
    Thank you so much for sharing this. Dr. Frederick was my mother’s cousin. I remember when he used to come to visit us on Liberty Street and as a child we used to visit his daughters’ homes in Sugar Hill in Gentilly. and we would also hang out with Rivers Frederick, Jr. who was closer to our age. Brings back lots of great memories. Patricia Braud Bishop.

  2. Hi Cousin Pat,
    Just wanted to let you know that the inspiration for me to write this story came from my memories of seeing Dr.Frederick and his kids come to your house on Liberty Street to visit you all. Your mom, Aunt Kate, and Dr. Frederick were first cousins since their mothers were sisters from Pointe Coupee, LA. Pass the article onto the rest of your Braud siblings. I know they would love reading it.

  3. I would like to thank the author for such a well researched article on my grandfather. Others who have written of his life have never mentioned my grandmother, Adele, whom I called “Old Mama”. It has always saddened me that she was omitted because I can still see her crossing the street from my Aunt Pearl’s house to come to ours to sit and talk with my mom (Lolita Frederick Millet), and teach me French. She held us together as a family and was adored by Papa. I have many memories of Papa (Dr. Frederick’s) and am always happy to see him recognized for his courage for living the life that he did and being a loving grandfather. Thank you again.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful history lesson about my great-grandfather. I grew up with stories about him and his portrait in my home. I have since followed in his footsteps and am a physician.

  5. Hi Linda… It was my pleasure to write this article on your grandfather. My aunt, Katie Jeter Braud was a first cousin to Dr. Frederick and Aunt Kate’s children, especially Lillie Braud, always spoke of Dr. Frederick’s mom, Armantine Dalcourt, whenever she would talk to me about the doctor. Lillie stressed how much of a great woman she was and, just as you said, how much Dr. Frederick loved and respected his mom. Lillie thought the world of her also. Even though she (his mom) was blind she would spend hours telling Lillie stories of their family’s past and sharing other precious memories. It is people like you writing such complimentary comments that make all my research so very worth while. Thank you so much, Lolita.

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