America’s First Black Ophthalmologist: David Kearny McDonough

By Derek Simon - February 12, 2024

In the early 19th century, Dr. David Kearny McDonough broke barriers in a time of heightened racial inequality as America’s first African American ophthalmologist.

Born in 1821 in New Orleans as the “property” of John McDonough, a prominent Louisiana landowner, David’s journey to become an ophthalmologist was a remarkable one.  In 1838 John McDonough used his Presbyterian connections to enroll David into Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.  It was his hope that David would assume missionary work in Africa after he received his degree.

David studied theology and apprenticed under Hugh H. Abernathy, a doctor based in Easton, Pennsylvania.  This decision upset John who had planned that David would travel to Africa to pursue missionary work.  Their conflict piqued in 1844 when David expressed a strong opposition to the African mission.  Upset, John considered cutting off David’s financial support and thought him to be both ungrateful and unprincipled.
Focused and undeterred, David continued his medical education and became one of the first slaves in America to receive a degree conferred by Lafayette College in 1844.  Despite severed ties with John, David found support through others, including Dr. John Kearny Rogers.

After graduation, David continued his medical studies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York in 1847. There he faced challenges since the school never officially recognized him as a student. Despite this, David completed his education there and went on to practice at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, marking the beginning of a remarkable 40-year career as the first African American eye specialist.

Dr. David Kearney McDonough’s journey reflects resilience, determination, and the pursuit of knowledge in the face of adversity, leaving an enduring legacy in the field of ophthalmology.
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