Introduction

Alexander Dumas Watkins was 22 years old when New York City police arrested him at his home in 1874.[1] He lived with his mother Rachel in west Chelsea, close to the sawmills, lumberyards, ironworks and factories that drew working-class New Yorkers to the neighborhood with promises of industrial jobs.[2] Watkins himself was a draftsman, preparing detailed technical plans and sketches for one or more of the nearby businesses.[3] To the officers who arrested him, however, the young African American man was merely a criminal.

The charge was theft—“attempted grand larceny in the second degree.”[4] Perhaps Watkins had been desperate for money, unable to support himself and his mother on his own. Or perhaps he hadn’t committed any crime at all, and was the victim of mistaken identity or the biases of a racially prejudiced police force. Whatever the case, on a spring day in 1874, Watkins was convicted and sentenced to two years and six months at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison.[5]

Watkins Prison Records 1874

Prison admission records for "Dumas Watkins," sentenced to 2 years and 6 months at New York's Sing Sing Prison in 1874.

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After his release from prison in 1876, Watkins was unable to find work as a draftsman again. A convicted criminal now, he was compelled to accept menial work as a janitor at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital.[6]

He wouldn’t be a janitor long.

At Bellevue, Watkins would observe medical procedures firsthand, eventually taking up the scalpel himself. By the 1880s, he’d be a key laboratory assistant at Princeton, contributing to early malaria research. He’d conduct experiments and demonstrations, lecturing the school’s all-white student body on biology and anatomy.[7] His work would be cited in Scientific American and the Journal of the American Medical Association.[8] And when he died in 1903, he’d be remembered as “the only Negro who has ever acted in the capacity of instructor in Princeton University.”[9]

Watkins wasn’t the first African American man to conduct scientific research at Princeton. Sam Parker provided invaluable research assistance to Princeton’s Chair of Natural History (and future Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute) Joseph Henry in the 1840s, and Alfred N. C. Scudder may have worked alongside astronomy professor Stephen Alexander in the 1860s. Like Parker and Scudder, Watkins held no official academic position. He never appeared in University catalogues as a member of the staff, and would be largely erased from Princeton’s institutional memory after his death.

Yet during his lifetime, he was a well-known, well-respected scientific researcher. Alexander Dumas Watkins’s skill and ingenuity won him recognition from New Jersey and New York’s scientific communities—a remarkable accomplishment at a college known for its conservative views on race, at a time when racial violence, segregation, and a hardening color line increasingly pushed African Americans to the margins of society.

Bellevue Hospital

Watkins’s scientific career began with Dr. William Henry Welch.

Welch joined the staff of Bellevue Hospital (now a part of the New York University Medical School) in 1878. Trained in Europe and conversant in new techniques and technologies transforming medicine, Welch returned to New York with dreams of an institute that would incorporate all the most modern advances in medical research.[10] Instead, he got a laboratory converted from an ice cream parlor on the hospital’s first floor.[11]

Nevertheless, Welch brought to Bellevue what he’d learned abroad: advanced microscopy, in-depth study of tissues and cellular breakdown, diagnoses based on research into the pathology of disease.[12] He enlisted his sister in upstate New York to send him frogs so his medical students could practice the art of dissection—as he’d found, to his disappointment, that these would-be doctors were “hopelessly unequal” to examining human specimens.[13]

Alexander Dumas Watkins, however, was entirely up to the task.

As Bellevue’s janitor Watkins had access to the hospital’s laboratories, and he spent a considerable amount of time observing Welch conduct autopsies, embalm bodies, and practice giving inoculations. Certain he’d seen enough to do the procedures himself, Watkins reportedly distributed handbills to local undertakers, offering to train them in Welch’s embalming methods.[14]

Welch put an end to the advertisements, but Watkins’s claims must have intrigued him. With a skilled draftsman’s steady hands, Watkins demonstrated on a cadaver for Welch. According to the doctor:

His technique on the whole was admirable.[15]

Welch’s approval gave Watkins entrance into the doctor’s inner circle.[16] Though not a student himself, Watkins would have interacted with Welch’s pupils—including William Libbey, a Princeton instructor who taught geography and histology, a field of anatomy focusing on tissue structure.[17]

Welch accepted Libbey as a student for a calculated reason, writing his sister that: “It is decidedly for my interest to take him, as he will probably be an influential man at Princeton, and is to take a leading part in the new biological course.”[18] The son of a wealthy Princeton trustee, Libbey had the connections and influence to promote medical and biological study at an important institution.[19] Welch, who would go on to found Johns Hopkins University, certainly approved.

But Libbey’s elite position and interest in the “Natural Sciences” also benefitted Watkins. And when he left Bellevue to return to his position at Princeton, Libbey invited the 30-year-old janitor to join him.[20]

Princeton University

Watkins and his wife Emma (pregnant with their first child) left New York for Princeton, New Jersey in 1885 or 1886.[21] At the university, Watkins worked at the histological laboratory in Nassau Hall’s west wing—not as a custodian, but a “Laboratory Assistant.”[22] He likely prepared materials and equipment for Libbey’s histology classes: embalming animals for study, cutting and staining tissue to create slides for students, and demonstrating the use of microscopes, among other tasks.[23]

Students reportedly visited Watkins at the laboratory, “seeking aid in difficult problems,” and he began to tutor “some of the students who were back in their work.”[24] But Watkins also lectured on Professor Libbey’s behalf, earning the students’ respect with his encyclopedic knowledge and “sly humor.”[25]

According to H. G. Murray (an alumnus from the class of 1893), Watkins “appeared able to define anything he saw under the lens”—“even a bit of cuticle one of the boys supplied” as a joke.[26] And on another occasion, when a student returned to lecture after cutting class for several days, Watkins simply glanced at him and quipped “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” before returning to his demonstration.[27]

Watkins’s skill with scalpel impressed the students. As Murray recalled decades later:

To see him slice to one-thousandth part of an inch the cardiac muscle of a shark was a revelation in accuracy.[28]

Watkins also worked with another Princeton professor, George Macloskie, who taught advanced biology courses.[29] Macloskie’s own academic research centered on insects (according to one newspaper, he’d written more than 25 papers on the subject by the 1890s), with a particular focus on mosquito anatomy.[30] In the summer of 1888, he became the first person to identify and describe the mosquito’s “venomo-salivary duct” and glands, its “poison-apparatus.”[31] The duct was tiny, less than eight microns in diameter.[32] (In other words, the size of a red blood cell.) Spotting these miniscule anatomical features took a powerful microscope and a pair of very steady hands—both of which he found at Princeton’s histological laboratory.

In his 1888 article in the American Naturalist, Macloskie thanked “Dumas Watkins” for his contribution to the discovery: Watkins had dissected the mosquito himself, creating “a set of excellent sections” (slices of tissue) that Macloskie used to identify the poison duct and glands.[33] Considering his background as a draftsman, Watkins may also have created the anatomical drawing printed alongside the article.

Watkins Macloskie Mosquito Sketch 1888

Sketch of a mosquito's "venomo-salivary" duct and glands from George Macloskie's 1888 article in the American Naturalist.

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Macloskie’s article was significant enough to merit publication in several other journals, including the Scientific American supplement in 1889.[34] But it may have been quickly forgotten if, in the late 1890s and early 1900s, physicians and researchers hadn’t discovered the role of mosquitos in transmitting malaria to humans.

Malaria had devastated human populations for thousands of years: mentions of the disease appear in clay tablets from Mesopotamia, ancient Chinese and Indian writings, and the Iliad—among others sources.[35] By the 19th century, maliar had spread across the globe, with more than half of the world’s population at risk of contracting the disease.[36] According to some estimates, more than three million people died from malaria in the year 1900 alone.[37]

Suddenly, Macloskie’s descriptions of mosquito anatomy were more than significant—they were vital. In 1900, the Journal of the American Medical Association discussed his contribution to malaria research, with Dumas Watkins named and credited as a colleague.[38]

Throughout the 1880s and '90s, Watkins also worked alongside Macloskie outside of Princeton—at the “Seaside Assembly” in Avon-By-The-Sea, New Jersey.[39] A summer school at a resort on the Jersey shore, the Seaside Assembly ran from July to September, bringing college professors together to conduct research and lecture on topics as varied as “biology, art, music, expression, mathematics, literature, philosophy, chemistry, Bible study, geology, psychology, history, pedagogics, writing, phonography and cookery” (just to name a few).[40]

Macloskie served as “dean” of the School of Biology, working from “an airy and well-equipped laboratory on the shores of Shark River.”[41] Fellow researchers included professors and doctoral candidates from Rutgers and Williams College along with “A. Dumas Watkins, of Princeton College,” the laboratory’s “curator and collector.”[42] At Avon-By-The-Sea, Watkins collected flora and fauna—filling “a chaos of glass jars” with algae, seaweed, other “marine specimens” (or one journalist described them, “various hideous animals”), as well as lichen, ferns, mosses, and pine flora.[43]

As other professors lectured the men and women who patronized the Assembly, Macloskie’s “little group of scientists” worked diligently, “completely and gloriously happy” to “pore over quaint bugs and beasts.”[44] And though Watkins may have avoided some parts of the Assembly grounds—like the amphitheater, decorated as a local minstrel troupe’s idea of “a negro hut”—at the laboratory on Shark River, he held a position even higher than at Princeton University.

He was named a member of the “faculty.”[45]

Seaside Assembly 1892

Article from the New York Tribune in 1892, describing the "Seaside Assembly" where Alexander Dumas Watkins worked alongside Princeton professor George Macloskie.

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Conclusion

Alexander Dumas Watkins died in 1903, around 50 years old, and obituaries in papers across the country eulogized “the brightest old Negro in Princeton.”[46]

Some of them made mistakes: the New York Times, for example, said that Watkins was only permitted to tutor “the less intelligent students in histology,” rather than step in for William Libbey during his regular lectures.[47] Others dated Watkins’s time at Princeton to the mid-1890s or early 1900s—a decade or more later than his actual arrival.[48] But all acknowledged his “profound knowledge,” “proficiency in the science of histology” and development of numerous “clever experiments.”[49] And as the New York Amsterdam News asserted in 1938:

Many graduates … will probably agree that they won their ‘sheepskins’ through the kindly and patient assistance of Alexander Dumas Watkins.[50]
Watkins 1938 Amsterdam News Article Thumbnail

1938 article describing Alexander Dumas Watkins's role as a Princeton instructor. "Sheepskin" was early-20th century slang for "diploma."

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Yet by focusing on Watkins’s race, expressing incredulity that Princeton men required a “Negro’s Aid” to obtain their diplomas, the obituary writers overlooked a key part of Watkins’s story: that most of the people who encountered him through the written accounts of his research never knew he was African American at all.

In his 1888 article on mosquito anatomy, George Macloskie identified Watkins as an employee of the Princeton Histological Laboratory—no other information necessary. Likewise, none of the numerous articles and advertisements for the Seaside Assembly mentioned Watkins’s race. He was simply “Mr. Dumas Watkins, of Princeton College,” praised as “a first-class collector” and curator of marine life.[51] As late as 1930, William Henry Welch (Watkins’s first mentor) would recall him in a speech at the New York Academy of Medicine, not as a black man who once worked as a janitor, but as “the celebrated Alexander Dumas Watkins.”[52]

When Princeton graduate H. G. Murray wrote a “sketch” of Watkins for the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1940, he declared (in what he doubtless considered praise):

Peace to his ashes, for he was a white man, though his skin was black.[53]

Murray’s dubious compliment hit closer to the truth than he knew. Prominent figures in the scientific community accepted Watkins as an equal in knowledge and skill—never referencing his race. As a result, the white scientists, editors, and members of the general public who saw Watkins’s name in journals and newspaper articles in the 1880s and ‘90s likely assumed that he was a white man.

Ironically, this may be one of the reasons many of his contributions were lost to historical memory for more than a century.

None of Watkins’s obituaries mentioned his work with William Henry Welch at Bellevue Hospital, or George Macloskie at Princeton and the Seaside Assembly. Focused only on his role as a “negro instructor,” they failed to connect their image of Watkins with the Watkins whose name had appeared alongside Princeton professors’ for two decades.[54]

Alexander Dumas Watkins’s story was more complicated—and more remarkable—than anyone in Jim Crow America was ready to accept.

Watkins Jersey Journal 1903

Alexander Dumas Watkins's 1903 obituary in the Jersey Journal.

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About the AuthorPanel Toggle

Isabela Morales is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University, specializing in the 19th-century United States, slavery, and emancipation. Her dissertation is a multi-generational narrative history of one African American family’s migration from Alabama across the American West during the 19th century. She completed her M.A. in history from Princeton in 2014, and a B.A. in history and American Studies from the University of Alabama in 2012. She has a strong interest in public history, and has been involved in the Princeton & Slavery Project as a researcher and contributing writer (2013-16) as well as the website's Content Editor and Project Manager (2017-19).

View all stories by R. Isabela Morales »

ReferencesPanel Toggle

[1]

Dumas Watkins, New York, Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939, accessed 1 January 2019, www.ancestry.com.

[2]

Ibid.; Plan of New York City, from the Battery to Spuyten Duyvil Creek (New York: Mathew Dripps, 1867), Plate 008, accessed 1 January 2019, www.loc.gov.

[3]

Dumas Watkins, New York, Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939, accessed 1 January 2019, www.ancestry.com.

[4]

Dumas Watkins, New York, Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842-1908, accessed 1 January 2019, www.ancestry.com; Montgomery Hunt Throop, The New Revision of the Statutes of the State of New York Part IV (Albany, New York: 1878), 76. Prison admission records list Watkins’s crime as “attempted grand larceny”; because he was sentenced to two years and six months (and the minimum sentence for grand larceny in the first degree was five years), he was most likely convicted of grand larceny in the second degree.

[5]

Ibid.

[6]

William Henry Welch at Eighty (New York: Committee on the Celebration of the Eightieth Birthday of Doctor William Henry Welch, 1930), 69; John Starr, Hospital City (New York: Crown Publishers, 1957), 134; Simon Flexner and James Thomas Flexner, William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine (New York: The Viking Press, 1951), 122-123.

[7]

To date, there has been little research conducted into Watkins’s life and scientific contributions. He appears briefly in a handful of articles on Princeton history, although these studies primarily use an inaccurate New York Times obituary as their main source of information on Watkins. See Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, “When Princeton was the Northernmost University Town of the Old South,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 49 (August 2005), 70; Stephen M. Bradley, “The Southern-Most Ivy: Princeton University from Jim Crow Admissions to Anti-Apartheid Protests, 1794-1969,” American Studies, Vol. 51, No. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2010), 112; “African Americans and Princeton University: A Brief History,” Princeton University Library, accessed 1 January 2019, https://libguides.princeton.edu/c.php?g=109937&p=762746.

[8]

G. Macloskie, “The Poison Apparatus of the Mosquito,” The American Naturalist, Vol. 22, No. 262 (October 1888), republished in Scientific American Supplement, Vol. 27, No. 681 (New York: Munn & Co., 1889), 10877-10878; Albert Woldert, “A Preliminary Investigation of the Theory of the Inoculation of Malarial Fever Through the Agency of Mosquitoes,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 34 (10 February 1900).

[9]

Excerpt from the Indianapolis Freeman in Joseph Elias Hayne, The Ammonian or Hamitic Origin of the Ancient Greeks, Cretans, and All the Celtic Races (New York: Guide Printing and Publishing Company, 1905), 173.

[10]

Starr, Hospital City, 128.

[11]

Ibid., 132-133.

[12]

Ibid., 125.

[13]

Ibid., 131.

[14]

Ibid.; Flexner and Flexner, William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine; “Report of Dinner Given in Honor of Dr. William Henry Welch at the New York Academy of Medicine on April 4, 1903,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 6, No. 7 (July 1930), 500.

[15]

Starr, Hospital City, 134.

[16]

William Henry Welch at Eighty, 69.

[17]

Henry Fairfield Osborne, “A Thrilling Life Story: The Travels and Adventures of William Libbey ’77,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, Vol. 28, No. 5, 128; Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, 1891-92 (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton Press), 12-14.

[18]

Flexner and Flexner, William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine, 120.

[19]

Osborne, “A Thrilling Life Story,” 128; Flexner and Flexner, William Henry Welch and the Heroic Age of American Medicine, 120.

[20]

William Henry Welch at Eighty, 69.

[21]

A. Dumas Watkins and Emma Fauntleroy, New York Marriages, 1686-1980, accessed 1 January 2019, www.familysearch.org; Alex Watkins and Emma J. Fontleroy, New Jersey, Births, 1670-1980, accessed 1 January 2019, www.familysearch.org.

[22]

H. G. Murray, “Bum Nail Sketch No. 6,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 17 May 1940 in Watkins, Alexander Dumas; Faculty and Professional Staff files, Subgroup 16: Other, Unknown, and Multiple Departments, AC107.16, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library; Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, 1891-92, 131.

[23]

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, 1891-92, 82; Murray, “Bum Nail Sketch No. 6.”

[24]

“Princeton Men Won Sheepskins By Negro’s Aid,” The New York Amsterdam News, 25 June 1938, p. 6. For Watkins’s obituaries, see also “Colored Instructor Dead,” The New York Times, 4 January 1903, p. 22; Hayne, The Ammonian or Hamitic Origin of the Ancient Greeks, Cretans, and All the Celtic Races, 173; “Recent Deaths,” The School Journal, 10 January 1903, p. 59; “Chips,” Broad Ax, 17 January 1904, p. 4.

[25]

Murray, “Bum Nail Sketch No. 6.”

[26]

Ibid.

[27]

Ibid.

[28]

Ibid.

[29]

Catalogue of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, 1891-92, 103-104.

[30]

“No. 106 Biology at Avon-By-The-Sea” in The Works of Stephen Crane (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1969-1975), 505-506.

[31]

Macloskie, “The Poison Apparatus of the Mosquito,” American Naturalist, 885-886.

[32]

Ibid., 886.

[33]

Ibid.

[34]

Macloskie, “The Poison Apparatus of the Mosquito,” Scientific American Supplement, 10877-10878.

[35]

See “A Brief History of Malaria” in eds. Kenneth J. Arrow, Claire Panosian, and Hellen Gelband, eds., Saving Lives, Buying Time: Economics of Malaria Drugs in an Age of Resistance (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2004).

[36]

Ibid.; Richard Carter and Kamini N. Mendis, “Evolutionary and Historical Aspects of the Burden of Malaria,” Clinical Microbiology Reviews, Vol. 15, No. 4 (October 2002), 582.

[37]

Carter and Mendis, “Evolutionary and Historical Aspects of the Burden of Malaria,” Appendix, Table 2, accessed 1 January 2019, https://cmr.asm.org/content/15/4/564/figures-only.

[38]

Woldert, “A Preliminary Investigation of the Theory of the Inoculation of Malarial Fever Through the Agency of Mosquitoes,” 338.

[39]

See The Oologist, for the Student of Birds, Their Nests and Eggs, Vol. 8 (Albion, NY: Frank H. Lattin, 1891), 165; “Biology at Avon-By-The-Sea,” New York Tribune, 25 July 1892, p. 3; “The Seaside Assembly,” New York Tribune, 6 September 1892, p. 4; “No. 105 Avon’s School By the Sea” and “No. 106 Biology at Avon-By-The-Sea” in Crane, The Works of Stephen Crane, 502, 505-506.

[40]

“The Seaside Assembly,” New York Tribune, 6 September 1892, p. 4.

[41]

“Biology at Avon-By-The-Sea,” New York Tribune, 25 July 1892, p. 3.

[42]

Ibid.

[43]

The Oologist, for the Student of Birds; “The Seaside Assembly,” New York Tribune, 6 September 1892, p. 4.; “No. 106 Biology at Avon-By-The-Sea” in Crane, The Works of Stephen Crane, 505-506.

[44]

“The Seaside Assembly,” New York Tribune, 6 September 1892, p. 4.

[45]

Ibid.

[46]

Various secondary sources claim that Watkins was 51 years old when he died in 1903. Watkins’s prison admission records, which dated his birth to 1852, tally with this estimate; his marriage records, however, give a birth year of 1855. Watkins would have, therefore, been between 48 and 51 years old at his death. Dumas Watkins, New York, Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939, accessed 1 January 2019, www.ancestry.com; A. Dumas Watkins and Emma Fauntleroy, New York Marriages, 1686-1980, accessed 1 January 2019, www.familysearch.org.

[47]

“Colored Instructor Dead,” The New York Times, 4 January 1903, p. 22.

[48]

Ibid. See also Hayne, The Ammonian or Hamitic Origin of the Ancient Greeks, Cretans, and All the Celtic Races, 173; “Recent Deaths,” The School Journal, 10 January 1903, p. 59; “Chips,” Broad Ax, 17 January 1904, p. 4; “Princeton’s Negro Instructor Dead,” Jersey Journal [The Evening Journal], 5 January 1903, p. 1; “Princeton Men Won Sheepskins By Negro’s Aid,” The New York Amsterdam News, 25 June 1938, p. 6.

[49]

“Colored Instructor Dead,” The New York Times, 4 January 1903, p. 22; Hayne, The Ammonian or Hamitic Origin of the Ancient Greeks, Cretans, and All the Celtic Races, 173; “Recent Deaths,” The School Journal, 10 January 1903, p. 59; “Princeton’s Negro Instructor Dead,” Jersey Journal [The Evening Journal], 5 January 1903, p. 1; “Princeton Men Won Sheepskins By Negro’s Aid,” The New York Amsterdam News, 25 June 1938, p. 6.

[50]

“Princeton Men Won Sheepskins By Negro’s Aid,” The New York Amsterdam News, 25 June 1938, p. 6. "Sheepskin" was early-20th century slang for "diploma."

[51]

See The Oologist, for the Student of Birds, Their Nests and Eggs, Vol. 8 (Albion, NY: Frank H. Lattin, 1891), 165; “Biology at Avon-By-The-Sea,” New York Tribune, 25 July 1892, p. 3; “The Seaside Assembly,” New York Tribune, 6 September 1892, p. 4; “No. 105 Avon’s School By the Sea” and “No. 106 Biology at Avon-By-The-Sea” in Crane, The Works of Stephen Crane, 502, 505-506.

[52]

“Report of Dinner Given in Honor of Dr. William Henry Welch at the New York Academy of Medicine on April 4, 1903,” Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 6, No. 7 (July 1930), 500.

[53]

Murray, “Bum Nail Sketch No. 6.”

[54]

“Princeton’s Negro Instructor Dead,” Jersey Journal [The Evening Journal], 5 January 1903, p. 1.

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