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Joyner, Robert Nathaniel, M.D. (1913-1999)

HistoryLink.org Essay 1164 : Printer-Friendly Format

Dr. Robert N. Joyner was one of Seattle's first African American physicians. At his retirement in 1998, after almost 50 years in private practice, his office on East Madison was the only remaining medical office in the Central Area.

When Dr. Joyner began his family practice in Seattle in 1949, he was one of only four black physicians in Seattle. (The others were Dr. Walter Scott Brown, Dr. William Calhoun, and Dr. James E. Jackson.)

Born in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts to Mabel and Robert Joyner, he attended Lewis Elementary School, Sherwin School, Phillips Brooks School in Roxbury and graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School. He passed the written examination for entrance to West Point Military Academy, but failed the physical examination. He entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1937 as valedictorian and president of his class. He was eligible for Phi Beta Kappa, but there were no chapters on black college campuses at that time.

In the fall of 1937 he entered Meharry Medical College and graduated cum laude in 1941 and second in his class. He interned one year at Hubbard Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, then served as First Lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps until he was honorably discharged for a physical disability.

Early Years as a Physician

Dr. Joyner credited much of his motivation and his education to an aunt who was a nurse in New Orleans. It was she who helped finance his education and it was through her that he learned of the need for a physician at Flint Goodrich Hospital there. He completed a one-year residency at the hospital and after learning that there was only one black physician in the entire state of Oregon, he headed west.

From 1943 until 1949, Dr. Joyner practiced medicine in Portland, a city he termed the most prejudiced place north of Mississippi. He remembered, "There were only six restaurants where you could eat. There were signs in the windows that stated 'we cater to white trade only' or 'we reserve the right to refuse service.' I decided to go in one of those restaurants anyway and I was told that they don't serve Negroes. I told them I didn't want any Negroes, I wanted some food."

A Distinguished and Pioneering Seattle Doctor

In 1949, Dr. Joyner moved to Seattle after passing the state medical board examinations. He bought the triangular lot facing East Madison between 19th Avenue and 20th Avenue and built the one-story brick building in which he treated thousands of patients, the vast majority of them black, for almost 50 years. He rented office space in a building on Maynard and Jackson until construction of his new building was completed.

Dr. Joyner served on the hospital staff at Cabrini Hospital for 38 years, was on the courtesy staff at Providence Hospital, and for the first few years of his practice took his patients to Washington Memorial Hospital on 17th and East Madison.

In the late 1950s he attended a meeting which demonstrated hypnosis and how it could be used to prevent pain in labor. He became extremely interested in this and took a course in Banff, Canada. The local medical society did not approve of it initially, but eventually hospitals accepted his maternity patients, whom he delivered under hypnosis.

Dr. Joyner was active in the NAACP and served as board chairman of the Central Area's first African American owned bank, the former Liberty Bank. In 1989, the Black Heritage Society of Washington State honored him as a pioneer black physician. He played piano, sang tenor in the choir at Mount Zion Baptist Church, and co-authored a 1993 book on the challenges of being a black medical student in the early 1940s, The Class of Meharry Medical College 1941.

Dr. Joyner was a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice, the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis, the German Academy of Acupuncture and the American Psychosomatic Society. He was also a member of the Washington State Medical Society, King County Medical Society, the National Medical Society and the American Medical Society.

After his retirement in August 1988, Dr. Joyner moved from his home on Mercer Island to Sun City, Arizona. He died there of renal failure on March 30, 1999.

Mary Henry Interview with Robert Joyner, January 1989; "Robert N. Joyner, Jr., Early Doctor to African American Community," The Seattle Times, April 5, 1999, p. B-6.

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