The History of the Cream City Medical Society

February 18, 2021

By: Rene’ Settle-Robinson, D.P.M.
Cheryl R. Martin, M.D.
Bernestine Jeffer
Sana Montgomery

Pictured from left to right in 1965; Walter White, D.D.S.*, Randle Pollard, M.D., George Hillard, M.D.*, William Finlayson, M.D. OBGYN, and Gerald Poindexter, M.D. Internal Medicine.*

At the beginning of the 20th century, slavery had been over less than fifty years, legal segregation had become codified, and professional medical care was unavailable to African Americans. Primary medical options for the black community included the use of spirituality, indigenous medicines, home remedies, “root doctors,” and healing churches, among others.

The 155 medical schools in existence around the turn of the century did not allow admission to African Americans. By 1900, Howard Medical School (founded in 1868) and Meharry Medical College (founded in 1876) as well as five other African American schools had been established. The American Medical Association (AMA) sought to raise the professional standards of medical education and licensure in the early 1900s. A federal committee was formed to study and restructure medical education. The Flexner Report was the result. By 1920, over one half of the white medical schools had closed or merged. Two all-black medical schools remained, Howard Medical School and Meharry Medical College. Harvard University and the University of Michigan also admitted African Americans. Meharry continues to graduate 15% of all black physicians in the 21st century and has the only black dental school in the country.

The reasoning behind closing five of the medical schools for blacks was that “the practice of the Negro doctor would be limited to his own race.” John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and other white philanthropists provided funding to black medical schools with the intent to focus only on “basic medical skills.” Research and specialized training were unavailable. Internships and residencies were extremely limited. Even the blacks who had graduated from Harvard and the University of Michigan had difficulty in the South obtaining hospital privileges in black hospitals. As an example, the entire state of Mississippi had forty-two beds available to black physicians in 1928.

The ramifications of the Flexner Report had a chilling effect as only 2-3 percent of students gaining admission to medical schools were black and they primarily attended Howard and Meharry. Between the 1860s and 1960s, these two schools provided education and training for the majority of black physicians. By 1920, there were only 3,855 black physicians in the United States for a population of 10.5 million African Americans. Many Cream City Medical Society physicians have graduated from these two prestigious institutions.

Wisconsin has been a rich and fertile ground for African American pioneers in Medicine. The Cream City Medical Society (CCMS) is the first and only Milwaukee based organization of African American doctoral-level health care specialists. It is a chartered chapter of the National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association established in 1895 that represents African American physicians and the health care concerns of African Americans or other peoples of color.

Member, Dr. Wayman Parker, reports when CCMS first began, meetings were held at members’ homes. This provided an opportunity for camaraderie, networking, and support. In the late 1970’s, CCMS began to hold meetings in concert with pharmaceutical manufacturers with a focus on continuing medical education.

CCMS was named after the cream-colored bricks used to construct many of Milwaukee’s finest buildings. This brick illustrates strength, beauty and the ability to weather many, many storms. These hardy qualities certainly define the CCMS membership.

The Cream City Medical Society was established in Milwaukee in 1927 under the leadership of Dr. Richard Herron*. Dr. Herron was the son of Milwaukee’s first African American physician, Dr. Allen L. Herron* who was born in Marshall, Texas in 1865. He graduated from Howard Medical School in 1892. He moved to Milwaukee in 1900 and established a medical practice at Milwaukee Hospital, later named Lutheran Hospital of Milwaukee. He also helped establish St. Anthony’s Hospital in 1908. According to the 1900 census, he was the only African American physician in Milwaukee along with two dentists. Between 1910 and 1920, there were four African American physicians listed, including a dentist, Dr. Clinton A. Johnson*.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams* was born in Janesville, Wisconsin. He became the fourth African American physician in Chicago when he began his medical practice and founded Provident Hospital (with an affiliation with the University of Chicago Hospital) in 1891. It was the first interracial hospital in the city and offered the first nursing school for blacks in the United States. In 1893, Dr. Williams became the first physician to successfully operate on a man who suffered a stab wound to the heart. Dr. Williams was the co-founder and first vice-president of the National Medical Association. He was also the only African American as well as a charter member of the American College of Surgeons.

The early members of CCMS consistently stood out as the best in the state. They were categorized among the old “Black Elite” and cited as typically being light complexioned, well educated, and well connected with the “White Elite,” who patronized their practices, as well as protected and favored them. Before 1930, Dr. Herron’s practice was 90 percent Caucasian. The outspoken ideology of the old “Black Elite” for racial integration often put them at odds with the emerging new Black Elite who embraced some of the ideas of separatism as a better mechanism for progress and to enhance racial pride. Predictably then, the foundation of CCMS focused on inclusion, consistent with the young Dr. Richard Herron’s upbringing and the influence of the ideologies of the elder Dr. Allen L. Herron.

Between 1920 and 1930, there were five African American physicians and dentists practicing here. Dr. Edgar Thomas*, from Mt. Gilead, North Carolina, was a graduate from Howard University. Also trained as a pharmacist, he became Wisconsin’s first African American pharmacist. Many called him the “herb doctor”.

In 1923, Dr. Prather J. Gilmer*, also a physician and a pharmacist, was a graduate of the University of Pittsburg Medical School arrived in Milwaukee. He worked for Dr. Thomas as a pharmacist. Dr. Gilmer eventually established a general medical practice which catered to African Americans. He became one of the founding members of CCMS along with Dr. Edgar Thomas and Mr. Oden H. Fiesher*, another pharmacist. Together they established the Community Drug Store, on the corner of 7th and Cherry Streets. Community Drug Store, which later moved to 440 W. Galena Street, was the first retail drug store to be owned and operated by African Americans. Dr. Gilmer was also a columnist for the Blade, the local Black newspaper. Both he and Dr. Thomas served terms as president of the local NAACP. Dr. Gilmer was an outspoken new “Black Elite” advocate and had a son, Jay, who would later play an integral role in initiating an inner city health center (the predecessor of Isaac Coggs Health Connection and MLK Heritage Health Center).

Also arriving in the 1920’s to Milwaukee was Dr. Ludie L. Gilmer* (no relation to Dr. Prather Gilmer), from Beloit, Wisconsin. He established a practice at 6th and Juneau. Dr. Ludie Gilmer aligned himself with the old “Black Elite” serving a largely Caucasian clientele initially. Eventually he established two separate practices—one serving whites and one serving Blacks. He assumed a major role in CCMS and attempted to bridge the gaps between the Old and New Elite philosophies. The first African American Podiatrist (then called Chiropodist) in the city was Dr. Richard Baylor*, who practiced from 1915 to 1929. In 1926, Dr. B. Nichols*, the second podiatrist arrived. These doctors may not have attended a professional school and did not have surgical training.

The first African American chiropractor was Dr. Williams Wims*. His practice was located at 4th and Galena Streets between 1915 and 1929.

According to census reports, between 1930 and 1940, twelve African Americans were in practice in Milwaukee. A female dentist was listed for the first time between 1940 and 1950. According to the 2000 census, African Americans in Milwaukee County made up 25 percent of the population. CCMS president, Dr. Rene’ Settle-Robinson, estimates there are no more than 5 percent African American physicians out of the total number of physicians in Milwaukee County.

A role model at home: Anna Thomas Standard*, shown here with her physician father, Edgar Thomas*, in 1954 is believed to have become the first female African American physician to practice in Milwaukee. Photo by George Koshollek, Milwaukee Journal.

Dr. George W. Hilliard*, born in Tupelo, Mississippi, moved to Milwaukee in 1951. He was a thoracic surgeon and Fellow of the American College of Surgery. He is listed in the Beloit Hall of Fame for his clinical excellence. Dr. Hilliard completed a surgical residency at Howard University and thoracic surgery training at George Washington University in St. Louis. Typical of the day, he was not allowed surgical privileges when he arrived here. He built a practice at 4th and North Avenue. He made house calls during the great influenza epidemic of the 1950’s. He later joined the staff of Mercy Hospital, one of the few hospitals where African American physicians could practice. Located at 2319 North 2nd Street, the hospital also owned a building at 2nd and North Avenue, which housed the medical residents and nursing students and still stands today. It is the current home of the United Ushers. Located on the southeastern side of Beloit, WI is a 6.6-acre park bearing the name Dr. George Hilliard Park.

Dr. Kenneth L. McIver*, born in 1906 in West Virginia, was a graduate of the Ohio College of Chiropody with surgical training. He set up a podiatric practice with physical therapy and radiology services in 1950, located at 707 West Walnut Street. He later moved his practice to 3rd Street (now Dr. M. L. King, Jr. Drive) and Garfield Ave. Dr. McIver served as vice president of CCMS under Dr. John Terry*. He had three sons, one, Dr. Warren McIver, would later follow in his father’s footsteps becoming the first African American Podiatric “family” on record.

Between 1950 and 1960, Milwaukee had more than 35 practicing African American physicians, dentists and pharmacists. Dr. William Finlayson, born in Florida, was a graduate of Meharry Medical School in 1953. He was a Morehouse College classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was invited to aid civil rights activities in 1964. Despite his training as an obstetrician, Dr. Finlayson was initially unable to gain hospital privileges. He later became the first African American obstetrics– gynecologist to practice in a Milwaukee hospital. St. Joseph first granted him hospital privileges. He operated a practice on 21st and Capital Drive from 1958 until 1997. He invited Dr. Wayman Parker, of Detroit and a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School to join the practice in 1976. Dr. Finlayson is also a past CCMS president and NMA obstetrics and gynecology section chair. Dr. Finlayson maintains an outstanding and enduring record of service to this organization and many other organizations including Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and the Isaac Coggs Health Connection. He has received a host of awards throughout his career. His late wife, Edith Finlayson, RN, also contributed greatly to this community. She served as a University of Wisconsin regent for many years.

The first African American urologit to practice in Milwaukee was Dr. Randle Pollard. Originally from Evanston, Illinois, he served as a combat medic during World War II while stationed in Italy. Dr. Pollard distinguished himself during the war and was awarded a Bronze Star and three Battle Stars. He graduated in 1951 from Meharry Medical School and was among the first African American residents at Marquette Medical College. Dr. Pollard became active in Milwaukee medical politics by representing Milwaukee physicians when he was elected as medical staff president in the 1980s of Good Samaritan Hospital (later Sinai Samaritan Medical Center, now Aurora Sinai Medical Center). Dr. Pollard has served as president of CCMS, has one of the longest memberships of the organization on record. While now retired, Dr. Pollard also remains active with the NMA representing Wisconsin as its delegate. Dr. Estil Strawn, Sr. (obstetrician- gynecologist) came to Milwaukee in the 1950’s and later became a founder of a multi-specialty clinic which became Northpoint Medical Clinic (later Columbia St. Mary’s Physician Group).

Under the influence of this prestigious and growing African American medical community, hospitals such as the former St. Anthony, the former Mt. Sinai Hospital (Aurora Sinai Medical Center), the former Milwaukee County General Hospital, the former Milwaukee Lutheran and the former Deaconess Hospitals became more open and inclusive to African American physicians.

Dr. Lester Carter came to Milwaukee to work in the drug store of another pharmacist in 1968. He is a 1958 graduate of Creighton University School of Pharmacy. This pharmacy was located, in a then-German neighborhood, at 24th and Burleigh. He later bought the pharmacy which became Carter Drug Store is the only drugstore owned by an African American in Milwaukee nearly forty years after opening its doors. He credits his longevity to the “good training” he received at Creighton where he learned traditional pharmacy as well herbal medicine. His background in herbal medicine has placed him above his competitors. It has also led him to advocate natural and traditional medicines to his predominantly African American neighborhood. Another African American pharmacist, Dr. Thomas Walker owned a pharmacy but later closed it. Dr. Walker is a former CCMS president.

The Misericordia Sisters moved from Misericordia Hospital at 22nd and Juneau in 1969. Dr. Louis T. Maxey Sr.*, an African American plastic surgeon, provided start-up funds to purchase and operate this empty hospital making it the first blackowned hospital in Milwaukee. It was renamed Misericordia Community Hospital. Dr. Louis T. Maxey Sr., held degrees in pharmaceutical sciences, dentistry and medicine. He became one of the first African Americans to be a resident physician at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital in plastic and maxillofacial surgery. He was the first black president and board chair of a hospital in Wisconsin in 1971 when the Wisconsin Hospital and Geriatric Treatment Center opened. Dr. Maxey’s wife, Harneitha, assisted her husband with his Milwaukee practice. The couple moved from Milwaukee to Gulfport, MS over 25 years ago and remained there after Dr. Maxey’s retirement in 1993. They were resolute in their decision not to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina. Sadly, both were killed when the roof of their home collapsed.

Marquette Medical College provided training for Dr. Pollard, Dr. James Christian* (otolaryngologist) and Dr. Roland Pattillo (gynecologic oncologist) in the 1950s

The 1960’s welcomed Dr. Arthur Howell* (plastic surgeon) and his wife Dr. Jacqueline Coates-Howell (pediatrician) from Indianapolis. Their daughter, Dr. Cecilia Howell-Canada would later join this family of physicians and she shared a practice with her mother. Dr. James Robinson* (gastroenterologist), Dr. Erskine Tucker (pathologist), and Dr. John Ridley (opthalmalogist) join the list of African American medical pioneers. Dr. Ridley became active is hospital leadership at St. Mary’s hospital in the early 1990’s.

Dr. Perry Henderson (obstetrician- gynecologist) is the first African American maternal-fetal medicine specialist and worked for many years with the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison. He trained Dr. Phillip Hamilton, Sr.* (obstetrician- gynecologist and maternal fetal medicine specialist). Dr. Hamilton became the first academic chairman of a medical school department (1985) in Wisconsin for the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee Campus at Mount Sinai Hospital.

The Cream City Neighborhood Health Center was established in 1972 to provide essential health care services to the central city. This was a result of a collaborative effort between Mr. Jay Gilmer (Dr. Prather J. Gilmer’s son), Dean Hirschboeck of the Medical College of Wisconsin, Blue Cross/Blue Shield Insurance and others. CCMS provided essential support for this crucial though shortlived effort.

The Medical College of Wisconsin (formerly Marquette Medical College) provided training in the 1970’s for the following physicians who practiced in Milwaukee: Dr. Roy Troutman (psychiatrist), Cassandra Pollard-Welch (internist), and Dr. William Walker* (family medicine). Dr. Lauree Thomas trained at the University of Wisconsin and later began Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Thomas was a CCMS president for a number of years who was instrumental in providing a partnership with the Medical College that resulted in thousands of dollars being donated to defray the cost of training African American Medical Students. She created several programs that helped African American students perform academically at a high level. It was also during her tenure that the Dr. Terrance Thomas* Scholarship was started. Dr. Thomas was a obstetrics and gynecology resident training in Michigan when he suffered an untimely death. His parents, Patricia O’Flynn-Pattillo and Robert Thomas, owners and publishers of the Milwaukee Community Journal started the scholarship in the memory of their beloved son. Dr. Estil Strawn, Jr. (obstetrician-gynecologist) followed his father, Dr. Estil Strawn, Sr.* and became Wisconsin’s first African American Reproductive Endocrinologist and Infertility Specialist). Dr. Strawn, Jr. is an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Alonzo Walker (general surgeon) is a past CCMS president. He is a nationally known breast cancer surgeon with the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Harvard Medical School trained the following Milwaukee physicians: Dr. James Flowers (internist), Dr. M. Eugene Pruitt (internist), Dr. Earnestine Willis (pediatrician). Dr. Flowers was the first African American chief medical resident at Mount Sinai Hospital. He wrote a book used by students worldwide to prepare for admission to medical school. Dr. Willis is the current director of the Center for the Urban Child and was an associate dean for the Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Sheri Johnson (child and adolescent psychologist) is our current state public health officer.

The 1980’s saw further advances for Milwaukee’s African American physicians practicing Internal Medicine, Surgery, Gastroenterology, Pediatrics, and other specialties. At St. Luke’s Hospital in 1985, Dr. James Bass* (cardiovascular surgeon) became the first African American to perform open heart surgery. From the far reaches of Ghana West Africa came to train at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Dr. Nana Grant-Acquah who became our first cardiac anesthesiologist. Dr. M. Eugene Pruitt is a past president of CCMS. He arrived in Milwaukee in 1980 to fulfill his requirements for the National Health Service Corps. He opened his first practice located at 12th and North Avenue. He was appointed full-time assistant professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2001.

Dr. Richard Evans, another Meharry Medical College graduate is our first peripheral vascular surgeon.

Two well known African American women psychologists are members of CCMS, Dr. Juliette Martin-Thomas, and Dr. Lula F. Reams. Both are licensed psychologists and National Health Service providers. Dr. Martin-Thomas completed her doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Wisconsin and became one of the first female African Americans to practice psychology in Wisconsin. She has more then twenty years experience in the Criminal Justice System, including working at Waupun State Prison for 14 years. She is currently a professor in the department of psychology at Alverno College and The Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology. She continues an active private psychotherapy practice. She has received many community awards for her volunteer work. The Wisconsin Correctional Association established the Dr. Juliette Martin-Thomas Award in her honor. And the Mount Mary College awarded her its prestigious Pro Urbe Award.

Dr. Lula F. Reams completed her doctorate in clinical psychology at the Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, and the Milwaukee Clinicians of Color among other professional organizations. She is also a certified Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in psychological testing and has an independent practice. She has also been a community activist and received many community awards.

The Isaac Coggs Clinic, which started as a free public health center, was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It was supported by the Medical College of Wisconsin and UWM in the 1960s. During the 1990’s, Dr. Cassandra Welch, an internist and past CCMS President, became the Medical Director of Isaac Coggs Health Connection, a federally qualified health Center. The services of the clinic grew under her leadership. Physiatry became available when Dr. Carla Wright arrived from Detroit and joined the staff of the Isaac Coggs Health Connection along with Dr. Welch, Dr. Troutman. Dr. Wright, is the first African American physiatrist in the state and former Vice President of CCMS. Many CCMS members began their professional careers at the clinic. The clinic continues to expand and includes a dental clinic, WIC program, pediatrics, women’s health, urgent care, HIV treatment and prevention educational services, radiology and pharmacy. The 1990’s were not only important for the increase in the number of African American doctors in Milwaukee but also for the broader spectrum of specialties represented for the first time such as cardiology (Dr. Cheryl Martin, dermatology, emergency medicine (Dr. Andrea Greene, pulmonary medicine (Dr. Jerry Jones), pediatric otolaryngology (Dr. Valerie Flanary), rheumatology (Dr. Alvin Wells), and pain management (Pamela Thomas-King and Dr. George King). Dr. Joan Prince, is a specialist in hematology and flow cytometry and is currently the Vice Chancellor for Partnerships and Innovation, clinical associate professor-College of Health Sciences, the Unversity of Wisconsin- Milwaukee.

More than 100 years since the first African American physician arrived and 80 years since Cream City Medical Society was established, there are more than 100 African American medical professionals in Milwaukee. Through the efforts of many of these physicians, resolving health care disparities has become their priority now joined by participation of city, the state, the nation, and the world.

Cream City Medical Society members, in the shadows of its founders, barriers and limitations not withstanding, continue to march forward in the vanguard of Milwaukee’s medical community, endlessly advocating for the disenfranchised, always striving for the best and looking up towards the unlimited future.

(* = deceased CCMS member)