Who Was the First African American Faculty Member at VP&S?

Every day in the CUIMC Communications office, dozens of news articles quoting the doctors and scientists of Columbia University Irving Medical Center pop up in our Google Alerts feeds. 

When the headline, “Fort Lee doctor who invented 'wogging' was more than the creator of a fitness fad,” appeared just after the new year, it soon became clear that this retro report was not just amusing, but also may have revealed the first African American faculty physician at CUIMC.

Dr. Thomas Patrick on his balcony in Fort Lee, New Jersey

The first African American physician at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons may have been pediatrician Thomas Patrick Jr., pictured here at his home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1989. Patrick died in 1999. Image: © Ed Hill, Exclusive rights NJMG, NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC.

What is "wogging," and what does it have to do with CUIMC?

Wogging, northjersey.com explained, is a word coined in the 1970s by Dr. Thomas Patrick Jr. when jogging became a fitness craze. 

Patrick advocated a gentler exercise—brisk walking—that could be done by anyone, anywhere. But “walking sounds boring,” Patrick told a New Jersey newspaper in 1980, so he combined walking and jogging to come up with a snazzier term—wogging—that made walking seem a bit more exciting.

And it worked. With Patrick as evangelist, a brief wogging craze swept the nation, or at least Fort Lee, which the mayor proclaimed  “Wogging Capital of the World.”

“Wogging sounds silly. Patrick was not,” writes David Zimmer for northjersey.com. “The Fort Lee resident was the first African American physician at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. He practiced medicine in Harlem for decades.”


First VP&S African American Faculty Member?

Though the CUIMC Newsroom has previously reported on early African American students and physicians in specific specialities, the identity of the first African American faculty member at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons was unknown to us. We asked Stephen Novak, head of archives & special collections at CUIMC’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, to investigate.

“At this point, it’s impossible to tell if Patrick was the first, although it seems likely that he was at least one of the first,” Novak says. “The ‘Nomination for Appointment’ form, which documents the hiring of professional staff, didn’t ask for race.

“We have lists of early African American graduates of VP&S, because in the 1930s and 40s, the National Medical Association, the medical society for black doctors when the AMA wasn’t integrated, asked the medical school administration for this information,” he says. “Yet, they don’t ever seem to have asked about faculty.”

What we do know about Patrick is that he was appointed assistant pediatrician in 1939 and remained at Columbia until his retirement in 1974 when he was assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at what is now VP&S.

“His father, Thomas W. Patrick Sr. was a notable figure in his own right,” Novak says. The senior Patrick immigrated to Boston and in 1892 opened a successful school of pharmacy that trained about 5,000 pharmacy students—almost all of them white according to the Bay State Banner—over the next four decades.


Harlem's "Baby Doctor"

Newspaper articles report that Patrick Jr. was born in 1908 and graduated from Harvard University in 1929 but could not gain admission to an American medical school because of his race. He traveled to Germany and received his medical degree from the University of Berlin, returning to the United States for residency at Harlem Hospital and Bellevue before coming to Columbia.

The same year Patrick joined Columbia, he opened a private practice in Harlem. The practice grew quickly and Patrick was soon known in Harlem as “the baby doctor.” Patrick’s fame as a physician was further cemented by his “Your Child’s Health” columns that appeared in the New York Amsterdam News for decades. (When Patrick sold his practice in 1982, the new owner paid to keep the same phone number, “which everyone in Harlem knew.”)

Patrick was also deeply involved in community health organizations. In 1939 he was appointed doctor at the Riverdale Colored Orphan Asylum, which cared for 650 children. He organized community health fairs in Harlem until the 1980s. He also founded the Neighborhood Day Nursery of Harlem in 1943 for children of working mothers, called “one of the most important events of early childhood education in Harlem” by the New York Amsterdam News. 

Before his brief fame for wogging, Patrick received more media attention for Camp Willowemuc, a summer camp for children from all races and religions that he founded in 1944. Throughout the 40s, articles about Camp Willowemuc appeared in major African American newspapers across the country and in the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune. 

Patrick believed that Americans needed to learn to live together, and he used the money he earned from doctoring to pay for the camp. “It is through our children that we must realize democratic ideals, and in such simple ways as this one—of having children of many races and creeds and backgrounds live together and get to value and know each other—we are working toward the possibility of a happier world,” Patrick told the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper in 1948.