February 17, 2017

University of Michigan’s Bicentennial: Celebrating William Henry Fitzbutler, M.D.

The Medical School’s first African-American graduate, Fitzbutler was a champion of diversity, equality, and social justice during a time when racial and gender inequality were the norm

U-M Bicentennial: William Henry Fitzbutler, M.D.

As the University of Michigan celebrates its Bicentennial in 2017, the Medical School — the first professional school in U-M’s history — boasts many firsts, including being among the first medical schools nationally to admit women and minorities.

The latter distinction includes training one of our most distinguished alumni — William Henry Fitzbutler, M.D. — an exceptional educator, humanitarian and physician who fervently sought to improve the health of African Americans. He holds the distinction of being the first African-American student to graduate from the Medical School, in 1872.

To dually celebrate the University's Bicentennial and Black History Month, the Medical School is honoring the accomplishments of Fitzbutler, a champion of diversity, equality, and social justice during a time when racial and gender inequality were the norm.

Fitzbutler was born Dec. 22, 1842 in Virginia. The son of a slave, he and his family fled to Amherstburg in Essex County, Canada, via the Underground Railroad. His interest in medicine determined, he graduated from Detroit Medical College in 1869 prior to graduating from UMMS in 1872. He was the first African-American to graduate from either of these prestigious institutions.

Following graduation, Fitzbutler and his wife, Sarah Helen McCurdy, moved their young family to Louisville, Ky. An outspoken critic of racial discrimination, he successfully lobbied the Kentucky legislature to allow the establishment of a medical school that could not exclude applicants because of color. He ultimately founded and became dean of the resulting Louisville National Medical College and hospital for more than two decades. In addition, he served as editor of a weekly newspaper in Louisville for African Americans, the Ohio Falls Express, from 1878 to approximately 1904.

His wife, Sarah, later entered the Louisville National Medical College as a student and became the first African-American woman to receive a medical degree in Kentucky. The legacy built by the couple at Louisville Hospital was highlighted in the Flexner report in 1909 at which time it was recognized as one of the best run hospitals in the country. Although the Louisville National Medical College closed in 1912, Fitzbutler’s impact on our medical community continues to this day.

Fitzbutler modeled the highest degree of professionalism as an individual who subverted his own self-interest for the benefit of others. He was a benevolent individual, a physician of great curiosity, courage, and commitment, and one with a vision to embrace the possibilities of tomorrow.

Our medical students honored him in 2016 by naming one of the houses in the M-Home learning community the Dr. William Henry Fitzbutler House.