World War I Doc Blazes Trail for Black Hospital, EMS Community

Published: 13 February 2024

By Katie Lange, DOD News
via the Department of Defense News and U.S. Army websites

Dr. Frank Boston

Dr. Frank Boston, who attained the rank of major while serving in the Army during World War I, went on to be one of the first Black men to start both a hospital and an ambulance corps.

Throughout American history, Black service members have forged new paths for future generations, despite the prejudices they may have encountered. One such trailblazer was Dr. Frank Erdman Boston, who reached the rank of major during World War I. He went on to become one of the first Black men to start both a hospital and an ambulance corps, which are still in business today

From the start, Boston’s life seemed pretty remarkable. He was born on March 10, 1890, in Philadelphia and was one of four children born to a hairdresser and a Civil War veteran-turned-barber shop owner. Boston and his older brother, Samuel, both became doctors.

According to George Whitehair, the executive director of the Boston Legacy Foundation that preserves the doctor’s history, Boston’s mother was part French and Native American, so she taught him the healing powers of herbs and natural remedies at a young age. Throughout high school and college, he worked at a drug store.

Excelling in Times of War

Boston went to Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College and University. He then studied at the Medico-Chirurgical College, graduating in 1915 with a degree in pharmacy and medicine just a year before the medical school merged with the University of Pennsylvania.

Army Maj. Frank Boston stands in his uniform outside of a store circa World War I. After the war, Boston, a doctor, started his own hospital and ambulance corps.

Boston then went to work for Mercy Hospital, one of two Black-run hospitals in Philadelphia. According to Whitehair, he also had a solo medical practice and was teaching first-aid classes for nurses when he enlisted in the Army Medical Reserve Corps in 1917. He was immediately given the rank of first lieutenant and sent to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, the Army’s only training camp for Black officers.

By June 1918, Boston was sent to France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. He was a medical officer with the 317th Engineers Regiment that was part of the segregated 92nd Infantry Division, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldier Division in honor of Black troops who served in the 19th century. Boston, a captain at the time, was a doctor and field surgeon who treated soldiers while under aerial and gas attack. The soldiers fought in the bloody Meuse-Argonne Campaign, the war’s most deadly battle that raged until the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.

By the end of his military service, Boston had attained the rank of major, which few Black men of that time achieved, Whitehair said. Boston was also a known associate of famed scholar and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois. Boston wrote letters about his wartime experiences to Du Bois, who had been instrumental in encouraging Fort Des Moines to be established for Black officers.

Boston returned to Philadelphia after the war and continued his civilian career as a doctor, but he continued working with the military, too, running a free clinic for U.S. and British war veterans, according to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. In 1924, he became the first commander of the city’s Lt. William G. Junken VFW Post.

Army Capt. Frank Boston was a doctor and field surgeon with the 317th Engineers Regiment, 92nd Infantry Division and fought in France during World War I.

A Groundbreaking Venture

By 1931, Boston had moved to the suburb of Lansdale after a fishing buddy recommended it, Whitehair said. Two years later, he formed an ambulance corps called the First Aide Emergency Squad, which provided first aid and emergency training. The corps worked like current-day emergency medical services but came along about 40 years before EMS became an actual profession.

Those who worked for the corps wore uniforms and trained like a military unit. During World War I, medical technologies such as mobile X-ray machines and motorized ambulances were used for the first time, which may have contributed to Boston’s interest in starting the corps, Whitehair said.

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