4 African American Healthcare Pioneers in Western North Carolina

Each February, we observe Black History Month or National African American History Month and we use this time to recognize the important contributions and achievements of African Americans throughout our nation’s history.

As we think about nationally recognized African American pioneers such as civil rights activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, inventor George Washington Carver, astronaut Mae Jemison, boxer Jack Johnson or President Barack Obama, we also want to cast a spotlight on western North Carolina’s history of African American pioneers in healthcare.

Dr. William Green Torrence – Responsible for the first black hospital in Asheville, Dr. Torrence opened what was known as Torrence Hospital in 1910. Prior to opening the hospital, he practiced medicine in the city as early as 1907 at the Young Men’s Institute. Unfortunately, Dr. Torrence died at early age after suffering from tuberculosis, and Torrence Hospital was forced to close in 1915.

Dr. Lee Otus Miller – An Asheville native, Dr. Miller provided decades of vital healthcare services to the city’s African American community. Dr. Miller saw patients at his practice on Market St. in downtown Asheville. In addition to his many contributions to the local community, he made a major impact to the medical community as a whole when he developed a method for treating high blood pressure in the early 1930s. Upon his passing in 1960 at the age of 72, Dr. Miller was remembered as a “prominent physician and civic leader for more than half a century.”

Dr. Otis B. Michael Jr. – The son of a physician, Dr. Michael was born in Asheville and practiced medicine in the city as a cardiologist. A member of the Buncombe County Medical Society and a licensed pilot, he also ran an air ambulance service, flying patients to receive emergency medical care. In addition to his many contributions to western North Carolina’s medical community, Dr. Michael was elected to the Asheville City Council in 1978.

Dr. John P. Holt – After twenty years of studying and teaching medicine outside of North Carolina, Dr. Holt came home to Asheville in 1961 to practice medicine. His father had also practiced medicine in the city, opening a medical practice in 1918. As a member of the Buncombe County Medical Society, Dr. Holt advocated for changing segregated conditions for African American doctors and their patients. He also was a public voice for the need for a national health insurance program in order to make healthcare more accessible to the underprivileged, as well as the benefits of neighborhood health clinics.

Mission Health is committed to diversity, inclusion and health equity by fostering a culture that values differences and similarities.

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References: Asheville Citizen-Times – Oct. 1, 1960; The Urban News: The People, Places, and Events that Help Define Asheville – Sept. 12, 2015; The Black Heritage of Western North Carolina, By Lenwood G. Davis, 1983; African American Hospitals in North Carolina, By Phoebe Ann Pollitt, 2017