One of Creole Louisiana’s most accomplished figures, Dr. Rivers Frederick, transcended the challenges and limitations of the late 19th and early 20th century American South and ranks among the nation’s foremost pioneers of medicine and surgery. Born May 24, 1874 on the Dr ouillard Plantation on the Mississippi River, just north of New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, Riv ers F rederick was one of 11 children of George Scott Frederick and Armantine Dalcourt Frederick. He was baptised one month later, on June 28, at old St. Francis Church of Pointe Coupee.
The Fredericks were outstanding members of their community and noted for their educational attainment and industry. Unlike most share-cropping families of the American South, the Fredericks, in time, amassed enough capital to purchase their own farm, which they named St. Jo seph Plantation in honour of the husband of the Virgin Mary and patr on of all who labour.
The hard road to medicine
In 1890, at the age of 26, Rivers F rederick left the family farm for New Orleans where he enrolled in Straight University. He graduated from the English course on his 29th birthday in 1893. Determined to enter the medical profession, Frederick enrolled in the Medical College of New Orleans University but transferred in 1896 to the
College of Physicians and Surgeons in faraway Chicago, Illinois. He never received any of the scholarships available to other students, but financed his education by tutoring other medical students and from assistance by family members. Rivers Frederick received his M.D. in 1897, the first known person of African-American ancestry to
graduate from that institution.
Frederick was one of the few Americans awarded an 18-month internship at the John B. Murphy Surgical Clinic at Cook County Hospital. He was one of only 12 of the 64 graduates of the College of Physicans and Surgeons to receive the honour, which was based on a two-day competitive examination.
After much consideration, Dr. Rivers Frederick returned to his native Louisiana. On May 2, 1898, he filed an affidavit in the Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse to set up practice in his home community. He was the first known person
of African-American ancestry in the medical profession in Pointe Coupee, at a time when there were fewer than 50 of his counterparts in the entire state of Louisiana. He attracted a large clientèle, consisting of persons of many ethnicities. This was a distressed period in the history of Pointe Coupee Parish, however, as a series of levee failures and floods had impoverished much of the population.
Frederick moved to Honduras and held the postof surgeon-in-chief at a small government hospital in El Roi Tan. There, he contracted malaria. After recovery, he returned to Louisiana, to set up practice in the city of New Orleans. There he was to receive the recognition he rightly deserved. He held the post of Assistant Professor of Surgery at Sarah Goodridge Hospital on Canal Street from 1904 until 1908. It was during this time, in 1906, that Dr. Rivers Frederick married his first wife, Adele Bouis. A first child, Pearl Frederick, was born a year later.
From 1908 until 1913, Dr. F rederick was Chief Surgeon at Sarah Goodridge. While at this post, the Fredericks’ second child, Lolita, was born in 1911. During 1913-1932, Dr. Frederick was surgeon for the Southern Pacific Railway. In 1923, Dr. Rivers F rederick was one of the founders of the Louisiana Lif e Insurance Company. He served, in turn, as board member, secretary, vice president, president and principal stockholder of the company which provided insurance coverage to African-Americans.
In 1932, Flint-Goodridge Ho spital was established, and Dr. Frederick was named Chief of Sur gery. He serv ed in that capacity until 1950. Meanwhile, his first wif e having died, Dr. F rederick married Eloise Clarke. Their child, Rivers Frederick Jr. was born in 1939. Fredericks’ accomplished career did not slacken as he passed middle age. In 1934, he
was elected first vice president of the National Medical Association. F rom 1935 until 1953, he was instructor of surgery for the Flint-Goodridge summer postgraduate curriculum. During this period, he was also active in the New Orleans Tuberculosis Association.
In another area, Dr. Frederick spearheaded the drive resulting in the establishment of the New Orleans Insurance Executive Council to represent the interests of the city’s African-American industrial life insurance firms.
A promoter of community harmony, Dr. Rivers Frederick served on the New Orleans Committee on Race Relations. He taught at the bedside white doctors from Tulane and LSU medical schools.
Under Dr. Frederick’s capable lead, Flint-Goodridge Hospital maintained its AHA standards and he recruited New Orleans ’ mo st qualified white physicians to practice there alongside African- American physicians. Dr. Rivers Frederick did not limit his services to the city of New Orleans. For many years, he travelled across Louisiana to lecture and mentor young African-American physicians. He helped at least one young surgeon establish a practice in New Orleans by providing him an office rent-free for four years as the practice grew.
Dr. F rederick received two honours in 1947: Flint-Goodridge held a testimonial service honouring his 50 y ears of medical practice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) named him a life member. In the following year, Dr. Frederick was appointed to the New Orleans Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the
Shakespeare P ark play ground. In 1949, he became a member of the International College of Surgeons, received the National Urban League Certificate of Recognition and was appointed to the New Orleans Mayor’s Negro Advisory Board.
In 1950, Dr. Frederick relinquished the post of Chief of Surgery at Flint-Goodridge in order to become its Consultant in Surgery. That same year, he was named Associate Medical Advisor to Selective Service Board No. 39 for Orleans Parish. In the award-filled y ear of 1951, he received the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Social Action Achievement Award, was named a Corresponding Fellow of the Societa Tosco-Umbra di Churgia of Florence, Italy and was appointed to the Louisiana Governor’s Advisory Council on Civil Defence.
Among the final recognitions awarded Dr. Frederick during his lifetime were the first Dillard University Alumni Achievement Award, the National Medical Association Distinguished Service A ward, an award from Flint-Goodridge Hospital, an award from the American Cancer Society and recognition by the New Orleans Branch NAACP f or 50-plus years of service to the city. Posthumously, he was honoured through the renaming of the Jefferson Davis School as “Rivers Frederick”.
After a lifetime of selfless, unprejudiced devotion to alleviating the suffering of humanity and to the advancement of education and civic improvement, Dr. Rivers Frederick died at his beloved Flint- Goodridge Ho spital on September 2, 1951, after having suffered a heart attack three months prior. Multitudes of ethnicities joined his widow and three children in mourning his passing. Wake services at the Louisiana Undertaking Company during September 4-5 dr ew members of the many educational and civic organisations in which Dr. Frederick was involved in his long professional and civil activities. His funeral was at Holy Ghost Catholic Church and he was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery on September 6, 1951.
The life and accomplishments of Dr. Rivers Frederick provide yet another example how a son of Creole Louisiana transcended prevalent Southern and national attitudes in rendering unprejudiced service to ALL of his fellow citizens.
Article by Brian J. Costello