NYAM’s First Black Fellow

by Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

In February of 1847, when the New York Academy of Medicine was just a month old, two founding Fellows of the Academy nominated Dr. James McCune Smith for fellowship, that is, formal membership in what was being set up as an elite medical organization. Smith was the first professionally trained African American physician in the United States, although he earned his degrees at the University of Glasgow, having been unable to gain admission to an American medical school because of his race. An accomplished physician who met all the criteria for fellowship, Smith was denied admission to the Academy at that time. In 2018 the Academy finally redressed that wrong by awarding him fellowship posthumously, 171 years later.

The identity of the first Black physician to become a Fellow of the Academy remained a mystery, though. Puzzling it out required reading a chapter of a frequently consulted resource, Gerald Spencer’s Medical Symphony, in a different way. Spencer was the subject of a blog post back in 2014, and his book, despite its frustrating lack of citations, provides a wealth of information about the contributions of Black Americans to medicine in New York. Chapter VII focuses on membership in local medical organizations, beginning with a section on the various county medical societies, and moving on to NYAM and others. A list of Black Americans who had been elected as Fellows by 1947, when Spencer’s book was published, appears on page 75:

Gerald Spencer, Medical Symphony (New York, 1947).

The first name on that list is Dr. Peter M. Murray. While Spencer never states that the names are listed in chronological order of election, an examination of the minutes of the Committee on Admissions confirms that this is the case. Murray appeared on the waiting list of nominees on April 6, 1932, along with the names of his three recommenders, and on January 4, 1933, he was one of 17 physicians who were recommended for fellowship, an offer he accepted. In doing so, he became the first Black Fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine.

Physicians recommended for fellowship, NYAM Committee on Admission Minute Book, January 4, 1933, NYAM Archives. Murray’s name is 4th from the bottom.

When Murray became a Fellow in 1933, most of his major accomplishments lay ahead, although he was at the time of his nomination the president of the National Medical Association, the alternative to the American Medical Association set up by Black physicians who were often denied membership in the AMA because of their inability to join their local medical societies.

The child of a longshoreman and a laundress, Murray was born in 1888 in Houma, Louisiana. His family moved to New Orleans when he was 12, and his mother became a practical nurse at the New Orleans Women’s Hospital and Infirmary. Her experience there led her to suggest a medical career to her son. Murray graduated from New Orleans University in 1910 and got his medical degree from Howard University four years later. He then began his career as an intern at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and continued working at the hospital as an assistant clinical professor of surgery and developing expertise in obstetrics and gynecology. At the same time, he took an appointment as a medical inspector for the public schools.

In his 1967 Journal of the National Medical Association biographical profile of Murray, W. Montague Cobb noted that “while President Woodrow Wilson was ‘Saving the World for Democracy’ and promoting the League of Nations abroad, Negro Federal employees were being discriminated against more than ever at home.”[1] Both Murray and his wife, Charlotte (Wallace), a professional singer and music teacher, felt that more opportunities would be available to them in New York, and moved there in 1921. Murray shared a Harlem medical office with Dr. Wiley Merlio Wilson, whom he had known when he was a Howard student, and initially he practiced surgery at the Wiley Wilson Sanitarium, a private hospital that Wilson opened due to the lack of opportunities to practice in other New York hospitals. Dr. Louis T. Wright,[2] another Howard graduate, had joined the staff of the public Harlem Hospital in 1919, and Harlem Hospital became the only New York institution where Black American physicians stood a chance of finding employment. Murray eventually joined the staff there in 1928 and later worked at two other hospitals, Sydenham and St. Clare’s, as well.

“Peter M. Murray, M.D.,” from Gerald D. Dorman, “Presentation of the Academy plaque to Peter M. Murray, MD.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 45, no. 8 (1969): 729.

One of Murray’s most important accomplishments occurred in 1949, when the New York State Medical Society elected him as one of its representatives to the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association. He was at that time the only Black physician from anywhere in the country elected to serve as a delegate, and he continued in that role through 1961. He was also elected president of the Medical Society of the County of New York for 1954–55. It is possible that Murray’s support of the AMA’s opposition to the development of a national health insurance program in the 1940s played a part in those elections. He took the idea of broader service to the medical profession extremely seriously, though, accepting seats on the boards of trustees of Howard University, the State University of New York, and the National Medical Fellowships; appointment to the Board of Hospitals of the City of New York; a term as vice president of the Hospital Council of Greater New York; and membership in the President’s National Medical Advisory Committee on Health Resources.[3]

Service to NYAM also mattered to him, and he spent over 20 years as a member of the Committee on Medical Education, as well as serving on a variety of other subcommittees. In acknowledgment of his many accomplishments, both inside and outside of the Academy, he was awarded the Academy Plaque, which recognizes extraordinary service to NYAM, at the April 1969 annual meeting, just eight months before his death on December 19.[4]


[1] Cobb, W. Montague. “Peter Marshall Murray, MD, 1888.” Journal of the National Medical Association 59, no. 1 (1967), p. 73.

[2] Louis T. Wright was, in fact, recommended for NYAM fellowship in 1930, two years ahead of Murray, and after a challenge, the recommendation went through on October 1, 1932. Wright must have declined, though, as his name never appears in any of the published lists of Fellows.

[3] Cobb, pp. 71, 74.

[4] Dorman, Gerald D. “Presentation of the Academy plaque to Peter M. Murray, MD.” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 45, no. 8 (1969): 728.

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