John van Salee de Grasse

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John van Salee de Grasse (1825–1868) (Note: His birthdate is also given as 6 June 1826.)[1] was the first African American to be formally educated as a doctor in the United States, getting his degree from Bowdoin College's medical school. He set up his practice in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was the first African American to become a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society (or any medical society in the US).

DeGrasse supported abolitionism and efforts to resist the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. During the American Civil War, he served in the Union Army as a surgeon with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first formed of the United States Colored Troops.

Early life and education[edit]

John van Salee de Grasse was born in 1826 in New York City and had a sister, Serena, and older brother Isaac. their mother was Maria Van Salee of New York, a free woman of color.[2][1] (Her surname was sometimes recorded as Van Surly.)[3][4] They were descendants through their mother's family of Jan Janszoon of Haarlem, Netherlands, and Margarita, a Moorish woman. That couple had four sons, who were mixed-race: two, Abraham Janszoon van Salee, and his brother Anthony, the better known, emigrated independently to New Netherlands from Amsterdam in the 1630s, settling in what became New York. Each had married European women. Among their generations of descendants are said to include "the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Humphrey Bogart."[4] Abraham was said to have also had a son in New York by a black mistress, establishing a line that became predominately identified as African American, with considerable European ancestry.[4]

Maria van Salee had married George DeGrasse,[1] who was born in Calcutta as Azar Le Guen, a mixed-race Indian-French boy.[2] Historians believe that it is likely that he was the natural son of François Joseph Paul de Grasse, a French naval officer, who was stationed on and off in India from 1762 to 1781.[2] Azar was born about 1780[2] (based on later censuses.) The senior de Grasse took Azar as a child with him to Paris for his education and was said to adopt him, naming him George de Grasse.[2] The senior de Grasse was already married and had a total of five children from his marriage who survived to adulthood. His eldest son inherited his title.

Francois de Grasse, also known as Comte de Grasse, became an admiral in 1781. He was a naval hero during the American Revolutionary War, where he commanded the French fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake, defeating the British and contributing to their surrender at Yorktown. He also fought in the Caribbean. After the war, he returned to France, where he died in 1788.

Comte de Grasse's eldest son Alexandre Francois Auguste de Grasse had a career in the army and inherited his title. He was stationed in Saint-Domingue from 1789, where he married a French colonial woman. They had their first child there. After their father's death, de Grasse's four daughters joined their brother in Saint-Domingue, and emigrated with him to Charleston during the Haitian Revolution. In 1794 they appealed to the US government for their late father's war pension from the Revolution.[2] Congress authorized an annual stipend for each of them. They rejoined their brother in exile in Charleston.

George de Grasse also immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City by 1799.[2][5]

Through his father's connections, De Grasse worked for a period for Aaron Burr, who gave him two lots in the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan, making him a landowner as a free man of color. De Grasse became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1804. With his French-South Asian ancestry, he escaped some of the restrictions against African Americans.[2] He and his wife Maria stressed education for their children, and all three became educated.

John de Grasse received a fine education, studying at the Oneida Institute in upstate New York from the age of 15. Then he went to Paris, where he studied medicine at Aubuk College.[5] He returned to the United States, continuing his studies at the Bowdoin College's Medical School of Maine in Brunswick, where he earned a medical degree with honors in May 1849.[3] He was the first person of color to earn a medical degree at a United States college. He returned to France to study under the noted French surgeon Alfred A.L.M. Velpeau (see French Wikipedia), who published several books on obstetrics, surgery, and various medical techniques.[6]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1851 de Grasse returned to the United States, settling in Boston. The next year on August 5, 1852, he married Cordelia Lucretia Howard of that city. Her parents were Peter and Margaret (Gardner) Howard.[1]

His sister Serena married George T. Downing. He became a highly successful restaurateur both in New York City and in Newport, Rhode Island, as well as an activist and abolitionist. Downing used his connections with powerful white families to support abolitionism and try to achieve social change for his people.

Career and Civil War[edit]

De Grasse set up his practice in Boston in 1854.


DeGrasse set up his practice in Boston in 1854. He joined the Massachusetts Medical Society, the first African American to join any medical society in the United States.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Franklin A. Dorman, Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts: 1742-1998, Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1998, p. 155
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h P. Kanakamedala, "George DeGrasse a South Asian in Early African America", in India in the American Imaginary, 1780s–1880s, ed. by Anupama Arora & Rajender Kaur; Springer, 2017, pp. 228-243
  3. ^ a b "John Van Surly DeGrasse (1825-1868), Black Past
  4. ^ a b c de Valdes y Cocom, Mario. "The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families: The Van Salee Family.", Frontline, PBS; Retrieved September 10, 2011.
  5. ^ a b Washington, S. A. M., George Thomas Downing. Sketch of His Life and Times, Newport, RI: Milne Printery (1910), pp. 7-8
  6. ^ D. Appleton, The American Annual Cyclopædia and Register of Important Events and Persons..., 1868, p. 755, full text online at Internet Archive

Further reading[edit]

  • “DeGrasse-Howard Papers, 1776-1976”, The Massachusetts Historical Society Library Collection Guides,
  • Jill L. Newmark, Binding Wounds and Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (2010)
  • R. B. Baker, et al, "African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846-1968," Journal of the American Medical Association, v. 300, no. 3 (2008)
  • Robert G. Slawson, Prologue to Change: African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era (Frederick, MD: National Museum of Civil War Medicine Press, 2006).