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