James Still managed to become a doctor at a time when many Black people in the United States were still enslaved and not allowed to go to school, not to speak of medical school largely because of racism. Still, with only three months of formal education, became a self-taught doctor who treated his patients with homeopathic remedies.
Becoming known throughout South Jersey in the 1800s as “The Black Doctor of the Pines,” he treated both Blacks and Whites and his practice was a success as he eventually became one of the largest landowners and richest men in Burlington County. He owned more than $50,000 worth of land by the time he died in 1885. However, he started from humble beginnings as one of 18 children of a freed slave and a fugitive slave, Levin and Charity Still.
Still’s parents had moved from Maryland to Shamong, New Jersey a few years before Still was born. Despite being free, they were also very poor and lived in a simple log cabin. In 1815 when Still was three years old, a local doctor visited the Pines to give vaccinations to Still and his siblings.
“The doctor performed the duty and I have sometimes thought that the virus being inserted in my arm must have taken better than usual, for the sting of the lancet yet remains,” Still said of that visit by the doctor. Actually, it was that visit that inspired Still to decide to become a doctor.
But as he grew up, he realized that dream was almost unattainable considering most of the doctors he knew were white. White medical schools were also not accepting Black students while Still did not have enough money to pay for medical school even if he gained admission. So three years after he was hired out as an indentured servant by his father, he read almost all materials he could find about medicine and botany.
By the age of 21 when he was released from indentured service, he moved to Philadelphia and continued to read more about medicine while working menial jobs to earn a living.
“To understand where he came from, with three months of formal education, he went over to Philadelphia and worked in a horse glue factory — saved enough money and bought these books on botany and physiology and went back and studied them and learned enough to come up with some of the cures that a lot of people weren’t doing,” Sam Still, the family historian, told Courier Post.
Before starting his medical career, Still was able to buy a small plot of land, build a cabin in Medford, NJ and start a family by 1835. He however lost his wife and daughter after a few years before remarrying and having two children. It was not long after his second marriage that his career in medicine began. He started by distilling herbs like peppermint and sassafras into oils. He then sold the oils to pharmacists in Philadelphia while studying books to enable him to know just the right medicine for a particular disease.
He earned fame in part because of a “cough balm” he created from plants and herbs grown on his farm to successfully treat a patient. Some Philadelphia pharmacists got to know about his product and started buying all of the cough balm he could supply. Soon, he became famous as a herbal doctor and many of his neighbors started coming to him for his treatments.
To try and attend to almost everyone faster, Still built a wagon from rough pine boards. Local doctors initially mocked him but soon began questioning his medical credentials as his fame grew. Amid their criticisms, Still consulted with a local attorney who told him that he was safe from legal action as long as he continued not to charge for his services or to never claim to be an MD, according to BlackPast. He however could ask for a fee for his medicines and for delivering them to his patients. That enabled him to start earning money from his practice.
Soon, he was able to pay off his debts, get a better wagon, buy several plots of land and a new house along the main road in Medford. There, he built an office to see to patients and dispense his medicines. It is documented that both the young and old and even doctors came to his office on Church Road in Medford, NJ, seeking his homeopathic healing.
By the time of his death in 1882, Still, a child of former slaves, had become one of the wealthiest men in Burlington County thanks to his hard work. He published his autobiography, “Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still” in 1877.
“What he writes about in his book to young people still stands today,” Sam Still said. “Buying property, being frugal, being respectful of yourself — you’ve got to take responsibility for your own situation.”
To help educate people about the late doctor, there is an education center in Medford near the property where he used to reside.