Under the Knife: How a Wealthy Negro Surgeon Wielded Power in the Jim Crow South

Hugh Pearson, Author
Hugh Pearson, Author Free Press $24 (256p) ISBN 978-0-684-84651-4
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Offering a thumbnail history of black medicine in the South, this biography of an unusual anti-hero, who happens to be Pearson's great uncle, is as controversial in its own way as was Pearson's reassessment of the legacy of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers in The Shadow of the Panther. Unafraid to challenge the benevolent family myth upheld in part by another relative's earlier memoir of Dr. Joseph Griffin, Pearson reveals ""Uncle Joe"" to have been a difficult, ambitious man. In 1911, Griffin, then a young brick mason, scandalized his mother by quitting his job and enrolling in Meharry medical college. During WWI, he did a stateside stint in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before establishing a practice for blacks in Bainbridge, in Decatur County, Ga. In 1918, when a nationwide flu epidemic killed the only white doctor in town, black and white residents alike relied on Dr. Griffin's effective advice. Because his Model-T was deemed too ""uppity"" for his station, whites drove him to and from house calls. Pearson also reports rumors that Griffin encouraged some black patients to sign over deeds to their homes to finance their treatment. In the 1940s, the aging physician had an abortion practice that was so lucrative that black and white out-of-towners flocked to local hotels, according to Pearson, prompting Griffin to pay off the local sheriff to avoid scrutiny. Although marred by old-fashioned language (i.e., consistent use of ""Caucasian"" and ""Negro""), an evident lack of sympathy for disenfranchised blacks and an emphasis on anecdotal history, this biography offers a fascinating character study. (Feb.)
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