Searching for Dr. Harris

The Life and Times of a Remarkable African American Physician

By Margaret Humphreys

Searching for Dr. Harris

322 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, 1 map, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-8006-4
    Published: August 2024
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-8005-7
    Published: August 2024

Studies in Social Medicine

Paperback Available August 2024, but pre-order your copy today!

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This is the untold story of Dr. J. D. Harris, an African American physician whose life and career straddled enormous changes for Black professionals and the practice of medicine. Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Harris served as a contract surgeon to the Union army and transitioned to a similar post under the Freedmen’s Bureau, treating Black troops and freedpeople in Virginia. Margaret Humphreys not only narrates what we know about Harris but offers context to his remarkable journey, including how incredible it was that a young man born into freedom in a slave state learned to read when literacy for Black people was illegal. He was one of very few African Americans to become a doctor before Howard Medical School opened in the 1870s, a fact that both reveals the structural barriers to medical education for Black Americans and highlights how those structures weakened in the 1860s.

Drawing on census records, court records, Civil War and Reconstruction documents from the National Archives, African American newspapers, and more, this book is a revealing look at the history not only of medicine in the southern United States but also of race and citizenship during one of the nation’s most tumultuous eras.

About the Author

Margaret Humphreys is Josiah Charles Trent Professor in the History of Medicine at Duke University and the author of several books.
For more information about Margaret Humphreys, visit the Author Page.


"Humphreys has written a superb biography that makes a substantive contribution to the literature on Black people in the nineteenth century. Dr. Harris's compelling story should matter to contemporary audiences who are interested in the antecedents of American medical training and its exclusionary structures and practices that still persist."—Claude Clegg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Searching for Dr. Harris is a complex and interesting analysis of Dr. Harris's life and times. A masterful and thorough researcher, Margaret Humphreys offers readers a compelling and significant story that adds to our understanding of Black history in the American South."—Todd Savitt, East Carolina University