Black History 365: Roscoe Conkling Giles

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Roscoe Conkling Giles (1890–1970) was an American medical doctor and surgeon. He was the first African American to earn a degree from Cornell University Medical College.[1] Giles worked as a surgeon at Provident Hospital in Chicago, and served as the hospital’s Chairman of the Division of General Surgery.[2] In 1915, he became the first African American to lead a city health department.[3] He was elected President of the National Medical Association in 1935.[2]

Early life and education

Dr. Giles was born on May 6, 1890 in Albany, New York to the Reverend Francis F. Giles and Laura Caldwell Giles. He graduated from Boys High School in Brooklyn, New York in 1907 and won a scholarship to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He became one of four students to be initiated into the second class of Alpha Phi Alpha, drafting their fraternity ritual and assisting in drafting their constitution.[4] He became treasurer of the national fraternity while at Cornell and was elected the first president of the Alpha Alumni Chapter while attending Cornell University Medical College in New York City in 1913.

He graduated from Cornell University Medical College in 1915 as the first African American graduate of the program. Dr. Giles reportedly received death threats and was asked to leave the institution due to the color of his skin, though he stayed and graduated with honors.[5][6][7]


Between 1915 to 1917 Dr. Giles interned at Provident Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. He passed the exam for Junior Physician at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium and at the Oak Forest Infirmary at the top of the Civil Service list; while certification was obtained eventually, his appointment was denied due to the color of his skin.[8] In 1917 Dr. Giles was appointed a supervisor of the Health Department by Mayor William Hale Thompson. He was associated with Dr. U.G. Dailey from 1917 to 1925. Dr. Giles became Assistant Attending Surgeon (1917-1925), Attending Surgeon (1925-1955) and Honorary Attending Surgeon (1956-1970) at Provident Hospital. He was affiliated with a number of professional organizations and involved in professional activities throughout his life, including serving as President of the National Medical Association (NMA). He is known within the NMA for chairing what came to be called the “Giles Committee” that successfully lobbied the American Medical Association (AMA) for the removal of the abbreviation “col.” after the names of African-American physicians listed in AMA Directory of physicians. The Committee continued as a “Special Liaison Committee” between the NMA and the AMA.[9]

Dr. Giles volunteered for service in the Medical Corps of the Army of the United States and entered as a Major, June 13, 1942. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1944 and became Chief of the Medical Services at the Thousand Bed Station and Regional Hospital in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Following World War II, he became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Organized Reserves of the U.S. Army until his death. In 1946 he was also appointed a Consultant in Surgery to the Secretary of War through the Surgeon General.

Personal life

Dr. Giles married Miss Francis Reeder and had two sons: Oscar DePriest Giles and Roscoe Conkling Giles, Jr.