A CENTURY after the onset of the First World War, John Alcindor was hailed as a “local hero”. However, in 1914, he had tried in vain to enlist so that he might use his medical expertise at the frontline. It was only the racial prejudice of the military establishment that prevented him from serving in the army. Instead, he was forced to use his skills closer to home, working with the Red Cross.
Despite his impressive qualifications and experience, his application to the Royal Army Medical Corps was turned down flat because of his “colonial origin”. Such was the bigotry experienced by one of the few Black physicians practising in London in 1914.
John Alcindor was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. After receiving a private education, he won one of four island scholarships that allowed him to travel abroad to study. In 1899, he graduated from the University of Edinburgh Medical School with first class honours in several subjects. He decided to make his home in Britain and he moved to London to take up posts in various hospitals before putting up his plaque in Paddington. In 1907 he became one of the Borough of Paddington’s four district medical officers, and he served the population of that area until his death. During his career there he became known locally as “the black doctor of Paddington” — a title that serves to remind us how few other Black physicians were working in London at the time.
He was fondly remembered for many years after his death as a gifted, caring doctor who devoted himself to his patients irrespective of their race or origin. He was also known for regularly offering free medical treatment to those unable to pay, but his generosity often went further. His family would later recall that he would often come home for dinner, only to package it up and go out again with it, saying: “My patient needs feeding not doctoring.”
In 1911, he married a local woman, Minnie Martin and the couple had three sons. Minnie was, however, disowned by her family for marrying him, and the mixed-race couple were shunned by many.
When the war broke out, Alcindor dealt with his rejection by the RAMC as he dealt with all such racial snubs. He simply found a way to work around it so that he could achieve his goal of helping people. Along with some 90,000 others, he immediately signed up as a Red Cross volunteer and throughout the four years of the conflict he helped countless returning wounded soldiers at London’s railway stations. He was later awarded a Red Cross Medal for this often life-saving work.
While he was personally able to overcome such bigotry, he was acutely aware of the injustices that his fellow Black men and women faced on a daily basis throughout the world. As early as 1900, he had attended the African Progress Union in London as a delegate from the Afro-West Indian Literary Society. This conference was attended by delegates from Europe, Africa and the United States. Amongst these were the noted civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois and the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, both of whom later became Alcindor’s friends.
The conference sought legislation promoting racial equality, and as a result the Bishop of London called for the British government to confer the “benefits of self-government” on “other races as soon as possible”. But this was a call that fell on deaf ears. Alcindor continued the political fight for such equality throughout his life and in 1921 he became president of the African Progress Union, succeeding the Black British politician, John Archer.
At this stage of his medical career, he was also busier than ever having taken on new roles as a member of the Committee of the National Council for Combating Venereal Disease and honorary member of the Anti-Tuberculosis Society. Perhaps his growing workload combined with his ongoing efforts for racial equality took their toll on his health because he died in 1924 at the age of 51.
Almost 60 years later, the elderly residents of Paddington still vividly remembered him but as they dwindled so did his legacy. Only in 2014 was his story retold when a blue plaque was unveiled in Paddington where he worked. The inscription reads: “Dr John Alcindor 1873-1924. Physician, Pan-Africanist and WW1 local hero”.
The ceremony was attended by Reshma Bissoon-Deokie, acting high commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago, who summed up her fellow countryman’s contribution. She said: “Dr Alcindor’s achievements in the medical and military fields, as well as his ardour for racial equality, are a testament to the impact one can have on society regardless of origin. His story will serve to inspire future generations.”
- Green J. John Alcindor (1873–1924): A migrant’s biography. Immigrants & Minorities. 6; 174–189: 1987
- Fryer P. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, University of Alberta, 1984
- British Red Cross. John Alcindor: the famous black doctor of Paddington and WWI local hero
- Black Presence in Britain. John Alcindor-Physician (1873-1924). 11 March 2009
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