Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Content warning: This piece is meant to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Sophia B. Jones, a Black woman from Canada who studied and practiced medicine in the U.S. However, there are brief discussions of the sexism and anti-Black racism faced by Dr. Jones and other physicians when accessing medical education in Canada and the U.S. For our Black community members, please prioritize your personal well-being in your decision to read this post.
My name is Brittany Pompilii and my pronouns are she/her. I reside on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabewaki, Attiwonderonk, Mississauga, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations peoples. This land is currently known as Niagara, Ontario. As a white, cisgendered, middle-class woman, I recognize how my experience in pursuing higher education has been steeped in privilege. In my life, I was able to attend and afford a university close to my home, and attend a program I wanted to be in. I can only imagine the magnitude of Dr. Jones’ experience in pursuing her own education in medicine - not only did she have to move to another country, but she would have studied and worked within a heavily male- and white-dominated field. I do not intend to speak on behalf of Black women in medicine, however, I want to acknowledge that my positionality and experiences may influence my writing of Dr. Jones’ life story.
This piece highlights the achievements of Dr. Sophia B. Jones, the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Michigan Medical School. In honour of Black History Month, this piece celebrates the accomplishments and legacy of Dr. Jones’ life, an inspiring Black woman from Canada who fought for her dreams, set the bar high, and created a legacy that has, and will continue to, positively impact Black folks pursuing medicine for generations to come.
Dr. Sophia Bethena Jones’ story begins in Chatham, Ontario. Jones was born on May 16, 1857, to James Munroe Jones and Emily Frances Jones, sharing a home with three sisters and two brothers (1; 2). Jones’ parents participated in the abolitionist movement in Canada; their activism was said to influence Jones’ desire to break barriers for women in the medical field (1). Growing up, Jones demonstrated passion for medicine and public health, and decided to pursue a medical education at the University of Toronto. In nineteenth century Ontario, there were few opportunities for women to obtain a medical degree, and Jones grew frustrated with the limited medical training programs available to women (3). As a Black woman, Jones was denied access to full medical training and therefore, could not become a doctor in Canada. In response, Jones moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where she attended the University of Michigan Medical School. It was there where Jones became a prominent figure in history as the first Black woman to graduate from the institution with a medical degree (4).
This was a common experience for women in Canada; as women could only attend medical school in the U.S. before they could do so in Canada. It was not until 1871 that women were able to be accepted into medical school to attend lectures and until 1883 for the first woman to graduate with a medical degree in Canada (5; 6). However, in Canada and the U.S., white women were granted opportunities to attend and graduate medical school earlier than Black women. The first white woman, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, graduated with a medical degree in the U.S. in 1849, while the first Black woman, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, graduated with a medical degree in 1864 – fifteen years later (6). In Canada, the first white woman to graduate with a medical degree, Dr. Emily Stowe, is recorded in history in Canada’s Medical Hall of Fame while the first Black woman to graduate with a medical degree in Canada is unknown and unrecorded (5). This disparity in celebrating women’s trailblazing accomplishments is an injustice, and part of Canada’s continuous mistreatment and prejudice toward racialized women in the medical field, particularly Black and Indigenous women. To learn more about Black folks' experiences of racism and discrimination in the medical field, click here.
After graduating from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1885, Dr. Jones taught medicine at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Spelman College is the oldest Black women’s private college in the U.S., and one of the first colleges established for Black women in the south (7). As the first Black faculty member at Spelman College, Dr. Jones founded the nurses’ training program to provide high-quality medical training for women attending the school (1; 8). Dr. Jones also led operations of the infirmary at Spelman (8). Today, Spelman College has been named one of the top undergraduate schools that presents the most Black students to medical school in the U.S. (9)!
After working at Spelman College for a few years, Dr. Jones’ moved on to Wilberforce University, a private, historically Black university in Ohio. At Wilberforce, Dr. Jones worked as a resident physician and provided healthcare to Black folks in the community (10). From there, Dr. Jones went on to practice medicine across the U.S. including St. Louis, Missouri, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Kansas City, Missouri (11). In all her work, Dr. Jones’ strived to serve and improve the health of the country’s Black folks.
Dr. Jones’ “Fifty Years of Negro Public Health”
In September of 1913, Dr. Jones published research titled, “Fifty Years of Negro Public Health” in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (12). This article became among the first research published by Black women in the medical field, following the path carved by Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
Dr. Jones’ article shed light on the health experiences of Black folx, specifically focusing on the increased risk of death, infant mortality, and diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis. She combats ignorant arguments made by white folx that the mortality of Black people increased after emancipation. Dr. Jones also discussed how the aftermath of the Civil War and the intergenerational trauma of slavery impacted the health of Black folks in the present day. In this piece, Dr. Jones called fellow healthcare professionals to take action towards health equity for all, starting with understanding the lived experiences of Black folks in the U.S. (1; 12).
One of the most cited quotes from Dr. Jones’ articles carries a powerful message that is still relevant today:
“It is not too much to expect victory for a race, which, in fifty years, has reduced its illiteracy from an estimated percentage of 95 to one of 33.3 as given by the census figures of 1910. Let the teaching of general elementary physiology, including sex physiology, and sanitation be placed on a rational basis in all colored schools and colleges, in the hands of men and women thoroughly trained and with full knowledge of the health problems named above, and there can be little doubt that the issue of the conflict will be such a rapidly declining death rate and reduced morbidity as will astonish the civilized world” (12).
Dr. Jones’ advocated for the importance of education, including sex education, for all. She believed in equitable opportunities to access information and knowledge about health, and enlightened folks on the benefits of implementing equal education, which are dominantly:
Decreased death rate
Reduced disease across the world.
After serving many years as a doctor, Dr. Jones retired and moved to Monrovia, California with her sister, where they cultivated an orange grove together. On September 8, 1932, Dr. Jones passed away at 75 years old (13; 14).
Dr. Jones’ legacy still lives on to this day. In 1997, the Fitzbutler Jones Society† was established at the University of Michigan in honour of Dr. Jones’ accomplishments, and her dedication and passion for advancing the health and opportunity of Black folks in the medical field and greater community (3; 11). The University of Michigan Medical School also founded the Sophie Jones Lectureship on Infectious Diseases and named a conference room the ‘Sophia B. Jones Room’. The room and lecture series were created to honour Dr. Jones as the first Black woman graduate (1).
The Fitzbutler Jones Society provides Black medical students and alumni with financial and mentorship support during, and after, their studies at the University of Michigan Medical School. The Society supports the education and training of Black physicians, scientists, and researchers in the medical field, in honour of Dr. Jones’ own journey in medicine (1). In the words of Nina Reid-Maroney, “Sophia Jones exemplifies the way in which women followed the opportunities of higher education [...] and used education as a passage through and beyond restrictions on women’s public roles in [...] Canada” (1; 15).
† The Fitzbutler Jones Society was also named after the first Black male graduate from the University of Michigan Medical School, Dr. William Henry Fitzbutler. Fitzbutler graduated with a medical degree in 1972, thirteen years before Dr. Jones (4; 7).
Learn about Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American woman to become a doctor of medicine in the United States here.
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Our Stories: Sophia B. Jones Charts a Course of Success for African-American Doctors [Internet]. [date unknown; cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from https://www.spelman.edu/about-us/news-and-events/our-stories/stories/2016/04/01/sophia-b.-jones.
Calkins LM. Jones, Sophia Bethena [Internet]. [place unknown]. Oxford African American Studies Center; [date unknown; cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from: https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-37266.
Pioneers and pathbreakers: Celebrating Black History Milestones at Michigan Medicine [Internet]. Michigan Medical Headlines. 2020 12 Feb [cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from: https://mmheadlines.org/2020/02/pioneers-and-pathbreakers-celebrating-black-history-milestones-at-michigan-medicine/.
Bordin R. Women at Michigan: The "dangerous Experiment," 1870s to the Present. Ann Arbor (MI): University of Michigan Regional; 2001.
Emily Stowe MD: Women in Medicine [Internet]. Canadian Medical Hall of Fame; [date unknown; cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.cdnmedhall.org/inductees/emilystowe#:~:text=It%20was%20not%20until%201871,Physicians%20and%20Surgeons%20of%20Ontario.
Weiner S. Celebrating 10 women medical pioneers [Internet]. Association of American Medical Colleges; [2020 Mar 3; cited Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/celebrating-10-women-medical-pioneers.
Spelman College [Internet]. [place unknown]: Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History; [updated 2021 Mar 10; cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/spelman-college.
Our Stores: Sophia B Jones and Ludie Clay Andrews, Class of 1906 [Internet]. [date unknown; cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.spelman.edu/about-us/news-and-events/our-stories/stories/2020/04/08/sophia-jones-ludie-clay-andrews.
Undergraduate Institutions That Feed the Most Black Students to U.S. Medical Schools [Internet]. [place unknown]: The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education; 2018 July 23. [cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from: https://www.jbhe.com/2018/07/undergraduate-institutions-that-feed-the-most-black-students-to-u-s-medical-schools/.
About Wilberforce University [Internet]. [place unknown]: Wilberforce University; [date unknown; cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from https://wilberforce.edu/about-wilberforce/.
Building the Next Generation of African-American Physicians: The Fitzbutler Jones Society reaffirms its commitment to scholarship support [Internet]. Medicine at Michigan. 2012: 34-35. Available from: http://www.medicineatmichigan.org/sites/default/files/archives/fitzjones.pdf.
Jones SB. Fifty Years of Negro Public Health. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 1913 Sept; 49: 138-146.
Michigan Alumnus, Volume 27. Ann Arbour (MI): University of Michigan Alumni Association; 1921.
Michigan Alumnus, Volume 39. Ann Arbour (MI): University of Michigan Alumni Association; 1933.
Reid-Maroney, N. African-American Women and New World Diaspora, circa 1865. Can Womens Stud. 2004; 23(2): 92-96.