Julian H. Lewis was a man who accomplished many significant “firsts” in his lifetime and yet he remains something of a mystery. A Black History Month event on Saturday, Feb. 21 will celebrate the life and legacy of Lewis, who was the first African American to teach at the University of Chicago, and who later was heralded as the father of anthropathology, a field that looks at racial differences in the expression of disease.
“He is virtually unknown, not just within the University, but to the whole world,” said Robert L. Branch II, an independent scholar who has studied the history of Lewis’ life and who will speak at the event. “That’s why I wanted to be part of this, to finally give him his recognition. This is the greatest unknown story of the greatest unknown medical and African American pioneer of the 20th century,” said Branch.
Lewis is known to be one of the earliest African Americans in history to hold both an MD and a PhD. His groundbreaking research on race and blood typing led to his equally path-breaking book, Biology of the Negro, published in 1942. “It was the first book of its kind to objectively use science to dispel the myth of a superior race,” said Branch. “It literally changed people’s perspectives on race.”
Born in 1891 in Shawneetown, Ill., Lewis was the son of two educators who were born into and later liberated from slavery. It was 100 years ago that Lewis earned his PhD in physiology and pathology from the University of Chicago, graduating magna cum laude in a year and a half. He then earned his MD from Rush Medical College and joined the UChicago faculty in 1917, as an instructor in pathology. In 1923, he became an assistant professor.
A noted expert in immunology at UChicago, Lewis later received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship to study in Switzerland. He left UChicago in 1943, and continued his career at Provident Hospital, the first black-owned and operated hospital in the United States. Lewis held a number of other positions from 1952 until his death in 1989.
Joining Branch as event presenters will be Christopher Crenner, the Ralph Major and Robert Hudson professor and chair of history and philosophy of medicine, at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, and Tyrone Haymore, founder, director and curator of the Robbins Historical Society and Museum, in Robbins Ill.
The presenters also will look at Lewis’ impact on the culture of the University of Chicago itself, and the network of support he created at a time when many students were confronting racism. “While he was never tenured, and that remains a question,” Branch said, “Lewis became a catalyst for promoting diversity at UChicago. His achievements had a far-reaching impact.”
As an activist and mentor, Lewis supported and championed the early careers of a number of prominent African Americans at UChicago, from dancer Katherine Dunham to the late Prof. James E. Bowman, father of Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
“I would be hard pressed to name any prominent black student or faculty member of his era who didn’t benefit from Lewis’ support,” said Bart Schultz, director of the Civic Knowledge Project, sponsor of the event. “He had a terrific impact as a scientist, but he also was a remarkable person.”
While teaching at UChicago, Lewis became the “bridge” between the University and Provident Hospital. “He was a pioneer in many respects,” said Crenner.
A highlight of the event will be the unveiling of a specially commissioned oil painting of Lewis, which will be donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in Washington, D.C. in 2016. Representatives from the Smithsonian will be at the event for the presentation of the painting.
“The Life and Legacy of Julian H. Lewis” will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21, at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. The event is free and open to the public. Reservations may be made for the event by connecting to: reply.uchicago.edu/JulianHLewis. For more information, visit uchicago/diversityproject.