William Henry Fitzbutler, M.D. (1842-1901), known as Henry, and his wife Sarah McCurdy Fitzbutler, M.D. (1847-1922) stand foremost among Louisville physician-educators, and community leaders. Henry Fitzbutler was born December 22, 1842 in Virginia, where his enslaved father was a coachman, and his mother was an indentured servant from England. In the early 1840s, his parents fled by the Underground Railroad to Amherstburg in Essex County, Canada. Henry showed outstanding scholarship in preliminary education, and he became interested in medicine. He read extensively in books borrowed from Daniel Pearson, M.D., an ex-slave physician with an extensive medical library, and he took a medical preceptorship with Dr. Pearson. He then entered Adrian College in 1864 to take preparatory courses. In 1866, he married Sarah Helen McCurdy, daughter of a prominent Essex County livestock farmer, and granddaughter of a successful Pennsylvania African-American farmer. In 1869, Henry became the first African-American graduate of the Detroit Medical College. He continued at the University of Michigan School of Medicine and became its first African-American graduate in 1872. A fine graduation thesis on cardiology displayed his intellectual discipline and skills. After graduation, the Fitzbutlers and their three young children moved to Louisville, where no African-American physicians were available to serve 18,000 Louisville African-Americans.
Henry became Louisville’s first African-American physician, and his medical practice thrived. The Fitzbutlers also became active in promoting equal educational opportunities for African-Americans while opposing segregated schools. As the four other medical schools in Louisville were closed to African-Americans, Fitzbutler secured a charter from the Kentucky Legislature in 1888 to organize a medical school that would accept African-Americans, the Louisville National Medical College. He led the school as Dean andmajority owner for the rest of his life, and it provided physicians essential for the African-American community. It became the best United States African-American medical college, and the only one owned and operated entirely by African-Americans. To advance the Fitzbutlers’ intense involvement in social and political issues, Henry founded, edited and published the Ohio Falls Express, a newspaper focused on the African-American community. He served as the paper’s Editor-in-Chief until his death, and he made it a relentless advocate of equality, human rights, and education for all.
After their six children were raised, Sarah Helen McCurdy Fitzbutler entered the Louisville National Medical College and became the first African-American female to receive a medical degree in Kentucky. She achieved an outstanding reputation, especially in
Obstetrics and Pediatrics. She became superintendent of the College’s auxiliary hospital on Madison Street, and also supervised the nursing program at the College. Her intellect, energy, and courage matched that of her husband, and they became influential and effective community forces for progress, education, and human rights, and medical care for all. After Henry’s death in 1901, she continued leadership in the Louisville National Medical College and its Hospital until their 1912 closure. Abraham Flexner’s historic 1909 inspection tour of medical schools and their facilities found her Hospital to be one of the cleanest and best run in the country. She also pursued an exhausting medical practice that provided enormous amounts of charity care in West Louisville. In 1922, Sarah Fitzbutler died in Chicago, where she had moved to be with family in her later years. Dr. William Henry and Dr. Sarah McCurdy Fitzbutler left legacies as shining examples of courageous achievement in medicine, education, and human equality.
- Gordon R. Tobin, M.D.