Dr Christopher James Davis

23 April 1842 - 27 November 1870

Le Bon Docteur Noir

Dr Christopher James Davis was the first black graduate from the University of Aberdeen Medical School. In his short life he:

  • Saved many hundreds of lives in the North East of France during the Franco-Prussian War by providing medical care and leadership for the treatment of the wounded of both sides. He also established two soup kitchens and provided food and medical care which saved hundreds of civilians from starvation and disease.
  • Was a pioneer of good diet and nutrition as an aid to recovery.
  • Was a respected evangelical preacher and an advocate for the poor. He was greatly loved by all who knew him.

Born in Barbados in 1840, Christopher Davis was an exceptional student and aged just 21 ran a local school and was a respected preacher and advocate for the poor. In 1866 he travelled to England to train as a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital London. He continued his studies in 1869, becoming the first black student at the University of Aberdeen Medical School, taking classes in practical anatomy, surgery and midwifery. He combined his studies with evangelical preaching and helping the poor of Aberdeen. He graduated in late 1869. In August 1870, Dr Davis read reports of the suffering of large numbers of casualties in the Franco-Prussian War and how fever and starvation had hit poor families in North East France. He was quick to volunteer his services and travelled to Sedan.

Perhaps inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale a decade earlier, Dr Davis worked tirelessly leading a group of friends to provide a clean and sanitary field hospital in which to treat wounded soldiers. He also refused to accept the sub-standard food provided by the military for the wounded such as unripe grapes and set sensible food standards which were met and which helped many to recover more quickly. He found the poor in Sedan wracked by disease and starvation. Using funds he and his friends had raised in the UK, he provided medical care to the poor and opened soup kitchens at Balan and Pont Mangy. On one occasion the food ran out with a long queue of families still unfed. Dr Davis gave his gold watch, received as a prize for his studies, to be sold to buy more food.

In early November 1870, suffering from exhaustion due to his tireless work, he returned to England briefly to raise more funds. Back in Sedan, he provided care in the local Smallpox Hospital where he contracted Smallpox and died at the age of 28. It is a mark of the esteem in which he was held that both French and Prussian officials, both civil and military, paid tribute to his work on his death. The Lancet concluded his obituary with these words: "For years to come, pilgrimages will be made to the quiet Nook at Fond de Givonne, where lie the remains of Le Bon Docteur Noir."

Research by Joanne Milne and Nigel Firth

Obituary: The Lancet 10 December 1870 p 830

image: Wellcome Collection; (CC BY 4.0)

Biography prepared from the nomination made to the University of Aberdeen 525 Alumni project.