Although mainly known as the founder of Louisville National Medical College, Dr. Henry Fitzbutler was an exceptional physician and educator. Fitzbutler and his wife Sarah Helen McCurdy became activists in their community of Essex County, Canada and later when they returned to the United States.
Henry Fitzbutler was born in Virginia on December 22, 1842. Fitzbutler’s father was an enslaved coachman, and his mother was an indentured servant from Great Britain. The Fitzbutlers made their way to Canada on the Underground Railroad and settled in Amherstburg in Essex County, Ontario. In Canada, young Henry Fitzbutler received an education that was unavailable to the vast majority of African Americans in the United States. While completing his secondary education, he developed an interest in medicine. He read myriad texts from the extensive medical library of Dr. Daniel Pearson, a Canadian physician who was a former slave. Fitzbutler became an apprentice to Dr. Pearson, his first step on his path toward the medical professional. After completing the apprenticeship in 1864, Fitzbutler entered Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In 1866, he married Sarah Helen McCurdy, who also had interest in medicine. Later, she entered Louisville National Medical College and became the first African American woman to receive a medical degree in Kentucky. Fitzbutler graduated from Adrian College in 1868 and entered Detroit Medical College. In 1872, Fitzbutler became the first African American to graduate from Detroit Medical College.
After graduation, the Fitzbutlers moved to Louisville, Kentucky. There they became the first African Americans to practice medicine in the city, serving a population of 18,000 black residents. In Louisville, Fitzbutler became a civil rights activist. He lobbied the Kentucky legislature until it was persuaded to grant approval of the first black-owned medical school in Louisville. The Louisville National Medical College opened in 1888, sixteen years after the Fitzbulters arrived in Louisville.
Henry Fitzbutler led the effort to provide African Americans in Louisville first-rate health care. He and his wife also envisioned the Louisville National Medical College as providing the necessary training for the next generation of physicians within the state. Fitzbutler also founded the Louisville Hospital which grew out of his private practice and which flourished alongside the Louisville National Medical College. Dr. Henry Fitzbutler died in Louisville on December 28, 1901. He was 59 and was survived by his wife, Sarah, and six children.