James Still became a doctor at a time when many Black people in the United States were still enslaved and were forbidden from attending school, let alone medical school, due to prejudice. Despite having only three months of formal schooling, he became a self-taught doctor who used homeopathic medications to heal his patients.
He became renowned as “The Black Doctor of the Pines” throughout South Jersey in the 1800s, treating both Blacks and Whites, and his practice was a success, as he eventually became one of Burlington County’s largest landowners and richest persons. By the time he died in 1885, he had amassed a fortune of more than $50,000 in landed assets. However, he came from modest beginnings as one of 18 children born to Levin and Charity Still, a freed slave and a fugitive slave.
Still’s parents had relocated from Maryland to Shamong, New Jersey, a few years prior to Still’s birth. They were destitute and lived in a modest wood hut despite their freedom. When Still was three years old, a local doctor came to the Pines to give him and his brothers immunizations.
“The doctor did his job, and I’ve often wondered if the virus that was injected into my arm responded better than usual, because the sting of the lancet still lingers,” Still said of the doctor’s visit. That visit, in fact, was the catalyst for Still’s decision to pursue a career as a physician.
But as he grew older, he discovered that dream was nearly impossible to accomplish because the majority of the doctors he met were white. White medical schools also refused to accept Black students, while Still lacked the financial means to attend medical school even if he was accepted. So, three years after his father hired him out as an indentured servant, he read practically everything he could get his hands on on medicine and botany.
When he was liberated from indentured service at the age of 21, he relocated to Philadelphia and continued to study medicine while working menial jobs to make ends meet.
“To understand where he came from, he went over to Philadelphia and worked in a horse glue factory — collected enough money and went back and researched them and learned enough to come up with some of the remedies that a lot of people weren’t doing,” Sam Still, the family historian, told the Courier Post.
Still was able to buy a small plot of land in Medford, NJ, build a cabin, and have a family by 1835, before beginning his medical practice. After a few years, he lost his wife and daughter before remarrying and having two children. His profession as a physician began not long after his second marriage. He began by extracting oils from herbs such as peppermint and sassafras. He then marketed the oils to Philadelphia pharmacists while studying literature to learn exactly what treatment to use for each condition.
He rose to prominence in part as a result of a “cough balm” he made from plants and herbs growing on his farm, which he used to successfully treat a patient. When several Philadelphia pharmacists learned about his invention, they began ordering all of the cough medicine he had available. He quickly gained a reputation as a herbal doctor, and many of his neighbors began seeking his help.
Still created a wagon out of rough pine wood to try to attend to almost everyone more quickly. Local doctors derided him at first, but as his renown rose, they began to question his medical credentials. During the backlash, Still sought legal advice from a local attorney, who assured him that as long as he didn’t charge for his services and never claimed to be an MD, he would be safe from legal action, according to BlackPast. He could, however, charge a price for his medications and the delivery of them to his patients. As a result, he was able to start making money from his profession.
He was soon able to pay off his debts, upgrade his wagon, and purchase numerous pieces of land and a new home along Medford’s main road. He set up an office there to see patients and dispense his medications. It is noted that both the young and old, as well as doctors, sought his homeopathic healing at his office on Church Road in Medford, NJ.
Still, a child of former slaves, had become one of Burlington County’s wealthiest men thanks to his hard labor by the time he died in 1882. In 1877, he wrote “Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still,” his autobiography.
“What he writes to young people in his book still holds true today,” Sam Still stated. “You have to take responsibility for your own circumstances, whether it’s buying property, being frugal, or being respectful of oneself.”
There is an information facility in Medford near the property where the late doctor used to live to help educate people about him.