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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

A Surgeon and A President

Charles B. Purvis and James Garfield


On the morning of July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was waiting for a train at the Baltimore and Potomac station in Washington, D.C. when an assassin's bullet struck him in the back and the arm. Garfield fell to the floor of the station and several physicians came to his aid amidst the commotion.

Illustration of Assassination of President Garfield, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, July 16, 1881.
Charles B. Purvis - Courtesy William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

As fate would have it, Black physician, Charles Burleigh Purvis was at the station that day and was one of the physicians who came to the President's aid. Although he received no monetary compensation for his actions, he was given an “honorable mention” along with several other physicians in a federal report of the incident noting that he “did all that science and skill could accomplish towards the patient's relief…”[1] His treatment of the injured Garfield that day gave him the distinction of being the first Black physician to attend to a sitting President.


From “Expenses of the Late Illness and Burial of President Garfield,” 47th Congress, 1st Session, House of Representatives, Report No. 1069, April 19, 1882, 1,4.

Learn more about Charles Burleigh Purvis in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons. Order today at Amazon, Southern Illinois University and use SIUP20 for a 20% discount, and other fine bookstores.


[1] Rapier Jr. to James P. Thomas, August 19, 1864, Rapier Family Papers, Howard University, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.


© Jill L. Newmark, 2023


[1] “In the Matter of the Payment and Claims and Allowances – Garfield’s Case, Claims Growing Out of the Illness and Burial of the Late President, James A. Garfield,” Decisions of the First Comptroller in the Department of the Treasury of the United States; with An Appendix by William Lawrence, First Comptroller, Vol. III-1882, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1882, 392.

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