Dr. Robert Fulton Boyd, a Nashville dentist and physician, faced daunting odds yet still became a pioneer in the field of medicine.
Not only was Dr. Boyd the first African-American dentist and doctor to open a practice in the Tennessee town, he was also a co-founder and first president of the National Medical Association, the leading Black health organization representing physicians and health workers nationwide.
Boyd was born a slave on July 8, 1855 in rural Pulaski, eventually living on the plantation of prominent Tennessee doctor Paul Eve. Boyd dreamed of becoming a physician despite his educational limitations, so he attended Fisk University at night when he became of age. Boyd did so well at Fisk, he was able to begin teaching in local schools.
The medical department of Central Tennessee College recognized Boyd’s efforts at Fisk, and he entered the institution in 1880. Two years later, Boyd graduated with honors. After teaching in Mississippi, he graduated from Meharry Medical College with a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) degree in 1887.
On June 11 that same year, Boyd opened his practice. Boyd provided service to poor citizens in Nashville, but served patients of all economic classes as the 20th century dawned. Taken aback by Black mortality rates, he lectured in public forums and churches on the importance of proper health care.
According to Fisk University historian Linda T. Wynn, Boyd collected more degrees. In 1890, he attended the Postgraduate School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. The following year, he earned a Master of Arts degree from Central Tennessee College. Boyd also dabbled in politics, running for mayor and in 1893, for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Boyd later became Meharry’s professor of gynecology and clinical medicine. Although Central Tennessee could not afford to open a teaching hospital, a facility was built near the school and students had privileges. The hospital was open to Meharry students until Nashville officials barred them due to race. This inspired Boyd to open Mercy Hospital in 1890, and he opened his doors to students and anyone else in need.
That same year, Boyd and a group of prominent Black physicians formed a national fraternity known as the Society of Colored Physicians and Surgeons, which then elected Boyd as its first president.
Because of his standing with the public, Boyd was asked to perform roles outside of medicine. In 1909, Nashville’s second Black-owned bank, People’s Savings Bank and Trust Company, elected Boyd as its president.
Never married, Boyd died on July 20, 1912 at age 57 due to “acute indigestion,” according to reports. He was survived by his mother, Maria Coffey.