“Give me an opportunity, I will do it” - Dr. Frank E. Boston & WWI
By George Whitehair
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
I had just finished compiling a fun and upbeat book of short stories highlighting the contributions of immigrants, entitled We Are You, with plans to dedicate the book to all first responders, as well as to unsung heroes. A good friend of mine, Dr. Francis Jeyaraj, a well-known and popular local pediatrician, mentioned to me that I might want to add Dr. Frank Boston, the founder of what is now the Abington-Lansdale Hospital (located in the suburbs of Philadelphia), to my list.
As I delved into his story, I quickly realized I had the opportunity to raise awareness for a one of a kind physician, who served his country and his community and may be the first veteran African-American in the US to start both a hospital and ambulance corps, both of which are in operation today. Dr. Boston was the son of a Civil War veteran, a veteran himself after serving as a military surgeon in WWI.
He returned to Philadelphia after the war to operate a medical clinic for British and American War veterans. He then settled in a small town outside of Philadelphia, where he founded the Elm Terrace Hospital and a separate ambulance corps. The hospital has since grown into a 140-bed acute care general hospital operated by Jefferson Health, providing a comprehensive range of inpatient and outpatient healthcare services with over 700 employees, and a diverse staff of more than 300 active physicians.
Dr. Boston also formed a First Aid Emergency Squad, which would eventually become known as the Volunteer Medical Services Corps (VMSC) and helped design their insignia. The ambulance corps now has 3 stations with coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. He achieved all of this during the 1930s, at a time when our country’s racial history was especially troubling. Somehow Dr. Boston rose above all of that to become a beloved country doctor remembered for his compassion and dedication.
With the recent anniversary of 9/11, I started to compile all of the research I had done on Dr. Boston, as well as the research provided to me from the Lansdale Historical Society, the State Historical Society of Iowa and some suggestions from the Chief Historian of the American Battlefield Trust.This led to research into World War I, where I discovered the World War I Centennial Commission and, in addition to reading the extensive collection available at their web site, I began to review records I could locate on Dr. Boston and his remarkable service to his country during WWI.
Francis (Frank) Erdman Boston was born in Philadelphia to Charles A. (born 1846) and Julia M. (born 1853). His Father was a Civil War veteran who served in the 12th Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry (113th Volunteers) of the Pennsylvania volunteers and was in the battle of Winchester,VA in 1864, where he blew the bugle for the calvary charge.
After the Civil War, Charles Boston remained in Philadelphia and worked as a janitor, and eventually owned a barber shop on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. Julia Boston, Dr. Boston’s mother, who was part French and part Native American, worked as a hairdresser. She is credited with teaching young Frank the healing powers of herbs and natural remedies that would also influence his career path.
When World War I broke out, just like his father before him, Dr. Boston enlisted and was immediately given the rank, First Lieutenant in the Army Medical Reserve Corps. Like most of the African American recruits, Lt. Boston was sent to Fort Des Moines for medical training at the Medical Officers Training Camp. Fort Des Moines, Iowa had been built in 1901 on 400 acres. It opened in 1903 with the arrival of the all-black 25th Infantry. This is also where black doctors began their war service with their assignment to the Medical Officers Training Camp at Ft. Des Moines, which was formed in July of 1917.
According to the records from the National Historical registry for Fort Des Moines, one thousand college men, with two hundred noncommissioned officers from the existing black military units, were sworn into the Provisional Army Officer Training School by Colonel Charles C. Ballou. On October 15, 639 men graduated from the course and received their commissions—106 captains, 329 first lieutenants, and 204 second lieutenants. The group of officers was divided and sent to seven different camps.While an unusual way to train the units of a division, but the Army considered it expedient not to assemble the men until they reached France.
It was June 1918, when the Fort Des Moines officers were sent to France for combat against Germany.They were the 3rd Battalion, 92nd Division of the American Expeditionary Force. After completing training, Lt. Boston was assigned as a medical officer with the 317th Engineers Regiment of the 92nd Division. He served in France with the rank of Captain and ended his military service as a Major. During his tour of duty, he treated soldiers while under aerial and gas attack. His division, the 92nd, would fight bravely across France and in the bloody Meuse-Argonne sector.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the largest operation of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I, with over a million American soldiers participating. It was also the deadliest campaign in American history, resulting in over 26,000 soldiers killed in action (KIA) and over 120,000 total casualties.The fortitude and valor of the 92nd, especially in the Meuse- Argonne Offensive, won them high praise from their commanding officers.The 92d Division was an important force in the fierce battles in France during September, October, and until November 11, 1918—the Armistice.This gallant division, composed entirely of black American troops, received a great number of citations and awards for meritorious and distinguished conduct. At least seven of the officers were cited for bravery in action and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.The entire First Battalion of the 367th Infantry was cited for bravery and presented with the Croix de Guerre by the French government.
The 92nd “Buffalo” Division fought under American command and was a complete American division, brigaded with its own army, commanded through the greater part of its service by Major General Ballou, and eventually by Major General Martin.Whereas soldiers of the 93rd served with France’s 4th Army, the 92nd would carry the name “Buffalo Soldiers” as their nickname and the 93rd would be known as the “Blue Helmets.”
Coincidentally, Dr. Boston served during the pandemic of 1918-19, often called the Spanish flu, which resulted in about 50 million deaths worldwide. For soldiers who
participated in the campaign at Meuse-Argonne, the influenza and pneumonia killed more American soldiers and sailors during the War than did enemy weapons.
After the war, Dr. Boston returned to work in Philadelphia operating a free clinic for American and British War veterans on 16th Street in Philadelphia. As one story goes, Dr. Boston did not like to charge a fee for services to veterans, as he once said,“You already paid by serving your country”. Following his time in Philadelphia, Dr. Boston decided that it was time to move to a rural area to become a “country doctor” (The rural area he moved to was Lansdale, a new and upcoming town outside Philadelphia). According to Mabel Reed, Boston’s head nurse for almost three decades, it was the result of an accident that he moved to the small town and made the rural community of Lansdale, a rising town 33 miles west of Philadelphia, his home. Dr. Boston later opened the Elm Terrace Hospital, renamed North Penn Hospital then Abington-Lansdale Hospital and subsequently becoming part of the Abington Jefferson Health Systems.
According to the National Archives,World War I brought new medical technologies, such as mobile x-ray machines and motorized ambulances, which were used for the first time in a battlefield setting.This certainly contributed to Dr. Boston’s interest in starting an ambulance corps, as after he established his medical practice, he founded the First Aid Emergency Squad in Lansdale, which would eventually become known as the Volunteer Medical Services Corps (VMSC).
In focusing my efforts while looking back at WWI, my perceptions have changed as to how race played a factor. Here were men willing and able to fight, yet there was a reluctance to use them. Despite this reluctance, when given a chance, the black soldiers performed their duties proudly in a War that saw more dead from illness and the pandemic than bullets. It also revealed how war time experiences, as bad as they are, also can lead to significant and positive change. Dr. Frank Boston was a black doctor who served his country proudly and brought back those battlefield experiences to launch his own hospital and ambulance corps, both continue to thrive long after WWI.
In 1960, Dr. Boston died of cancer at the age of 69.There is a memorial in front of the local Baptist church in Lansdale, PA to honor him as well as a bust in the Hospital. However, what Dr. Boston achieved, long before the civil rights movement, needs to be known across the country. His lasting legacy is “Give me an opportunity, I will do it”
To learn more about Dr. Boston, visit www.doctorfrankboston.com.
George Whitehair has been the Chair of Publicity for the International Spring Festival, one of Pennsylvania’s largest multicultural organizations, for well over a decade. It was his desire to dedicate his first book to all first responders, which lead him to re-discover Dr. Frank E. Boston and George is now one of the driving forces behind the legacy of Dr. Boston. George has degrees from Temple University and Rutgers University.
Dr. Francis Jeyaraj is a well know community leader and physician in Pennsylvania and is the founder of the International Spring Festival. Dr. Jeyaraj has served on the boards of many organizations, devoting his life to diversity and inclusion. He continues to serve on the Montgomery County Board of Health and previously served as the Chief of the Medical Staff at Abington-Lansdale Hospital.
Dr. Orlando C. Kirton is a Harvard educated medical doctor, Surgeon-in-Chief, Chairman of Surgery, Abington-Jefferson Health, Vice Chairman, Jefferson Health Enterprise Department of Surgery, Professor of Surgery, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. Dr. Kirton also proudly served in the United States Army Reserve Medical Corps, where he ascended to the rank of Major.
Dr. Edith P. Mitchell is Clinical Professor of Medicine and Medical Oncology at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, Associate Director for Diversity Programs and Director of the Center to Eliminate Cancer Disparities for Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, and the 116th President National Medical Association. In addition to her medical achievements, Dr. Mitchell is a retired Brigadier General, the first female physician to attain this rank in the history of the U.S. Air Force.
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