“This is the greatest unknown story of the greatest unknown medical and African American pioneer of the 20th century,” said Robert L. Branch II. Branch was speaking about Julian Herman Lewis, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. Lewis was honored this past Saturday at the University of Chicago during Black History Month, in a program called “The Life and Legacy of Julian H. Lewis.” Branch, also an Alpha Phi Alpha, has studied Lewis’ life extensively and he spoke at the event. Branch added, “He is virtually unknown, not just within the University, but to the whole world.” Lewis doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Lewis was born in 1891 in what is now Old Shawneetown in southern Illinois, near the Kentucky border. The Ohio River flooded in 1937 and the town was moved. His parents had been born into slavery, but they became educators. Lewis traveled from Shawneetown to Champaign and, at the age of 16, enrolled at the University of Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1911 and a master’s degree a year later. He then entered the University of Chicago where he earned a Ph.D. in physiology and pathology from the University of Chicago in a year and a half. He graduated magna cum laude and his dissertation on the role of lipids in immunity was published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. It also won the prestigious Ricketts Prize.
He then entered Rush Medical College and earned his M.D. in 1917. He also won the Benjamin Rush Medal. That year he joined the University of Chicago faculty as an instructor in pathology. He became an assistant professor in 1923. He was the first African American faculty member to be hired by the University.
Lewis was one of the first African Americans to earn both a medical degree and a doctorate. In 1913, he was the first African American inducted into Sigma Xi, the scientific honorary. He was also the first African American to be a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, a medical fraternity.
He was a charter member of the Xi Lambda Graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. The chapter was installed on May 15, 1924.
At the 18th Annual Convention of Alpha Phi Alpha, held in Detroit during the last week of 1925, Lewis was the keynote speaker at the public meeting, on Sunday, December 27. It was held at the Bethel A.M.E. Church at the corner of St. Antoine and Frederick Streets. In the fraternity’s magazine, The Sphinx, he was called “the brilliant young Doctor of Philosophy and Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Chicago.” Brother Lewis, “delivered a masterpiece of the subject ‘world standards,’” and his talk was printed in the magazine.
According to this account in the June 1926 Sphinx, on May 16, 1926, he was in Atlanta with the Eta Lambda, Alpha Pi and Alpha Rho chapters as Eta Lambda at Atlanta University hosted, “the greatest educational campaign in its history. The outstanding events in conjunction with the movement in Georgia as outlined in the report of the state director, J. Garland Wood, were: the High School Essay Contest on ‘Why I Am Going to College;’ educational sermons by pastors in the churches; the publication of a booklet, ‘Go to College – Why and How;’ which received nationwide distribution; and the presentation of Dr. Julian H. Lewis, Assistant Professor at Chicago University in a monster mass meeting….the mass meeting which was addressed by Dr. Julian H. Lewis of Chicago was the largest of its kind ever held in this city. The First Congregational Church was filled to capacity to receive this masterpiece that had been prepared for them by our own distinguished Brother from Chicago….Dr. Lewis, who is well known to Alpha Phi Alpha as a keen and forceful speaker, was at his best on the subject of education.”
Lewis is considered the “Father of Anthropathology,” the study of racial differences in the expression of disease. His book, Biology of the Negro, was published in 1942 and it was the result of his research on race and blood typing. Lewis studied in Switzerland on a Guggenheim fellowship.
He left the University of Chicago in 1943 after having unsuccessfully proposed a laboratory devoted to the study of comparative physiology, chemistry and pathology of the races. He then joined Provident Hospital, the United States’ first black-owned and operated hospital.
Lewis and his wife Eva had three children. They lived in a house at 47th and Champlain near the University of Chicago campus. Lewis was living in that house at the time of his death on March 6, 1989, at the age of 98.
One of the highlight’s of Saturday’s program was the unveiling of an oil painting of Lewis, which will be donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum is scheduled to open in 2016.
© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2015. All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory/