» Archive Spotlight: Dr. Joseph Hoffman and His Legacy by Kangkang Kovacs

February 25, 2022
News & Notes, Archive Spotlight

Joseph Irwin Hoffman, Jr., MD was born in Charleston in 1898. A graduate of the Avery school, Dr. Hoffman completed his medical education at Howard University in Washington D.C. and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and practiced medicine in the greater Charleston area for the rest of his life.1

In 1980, Dr. Hoffman participated in an oral history interview conducted by Edmund Drago and Eugene Hunt from the Avery Institute. In this conversation, with vivid language and a nostalgic sense of humor, Dr. Hoffman recalled his childhood and his education at the Avery school, as well as the segregation that he experienced, the famous 1963 March on Washington that he went to, and the MUSC hospital strike that he witnessed.2

Hoffman’s grandfather, a white man from Germany, owned a street-corner-grocery store in downtown Charleston. Hoffman had a lighter skin pigmentation as compared to the rest of his family. Hoffman’s father worked as a butcher. At age ten or eleven, little Hoffman often sat in the carriage to help deliver meat to his father’s clients. Sometimes he’d get a piece of biscuit in return. But he never liked to see the chickens being killed.3

Hoffman’s early education began in St. Peter’s Catholic School. Back then, all the teachers were white: some came from Ireland, a few were Jewish. Hoffman was very fond of his teachers, and felt they took a liking to him. One of his teachers gave him a collection of Goethe’s poems. He cherished the book by the great German poet – “I memorized a good many things in it.”4 

Principal Benjamin Cox at the Avery Normal School was much admired by Dr. Hoffman. “He and his wife kind of bring culture to the kids,”5 said Hoffman in the interview. He went on to say that Avery was more like a college than a high school during Mr. Cox’s time, when the principal would arrange to play opera, organize various clubs and sing in chorus. The concept of social equality and voting rights were also embedded in the courses at the Avery Normal School. Yet most black youths were warned against coming near the voting booths by their elders. There was a great deal of harassment, down-right violence, and drunkenness. “The candidates would always furnish them (white voters) with all the liquor,” Hoffman recalled, “they’d chase away the black folks, that was the point.”6

Despite the segregation, there were a sizable population of Black physicians practicing in Dr. Hoffman’s time. In 1897 Dr. McClennan established the Cannon Street Hospital. The hospital was filled with patients from as far as Awendaw, Mount Pleasant, Edisto and Daniel Island, patients who were Black and poor, who couldn’t be admitted into other hospitals for the “Whites-only” policy.7 Women doctors were practicing too. Hoffman recalled Dr. Prioleau, a female black physician and Miss Banks, the first head nurse at Cannon Street Hospital, who was “very active in training other nurses.” He also named Dr. Seabrook, who “had a very active practice” and Dr. John McFall, “a pharmacist and a very active and outstanding man in the community.”8  

In 1929, Hoffman graduated from medical school, he was offered a practice in Corona, New York. A lot of Black residents left Charleston to seek for better opportunity in New York and Philadelphia at the time. Hoffman eventually turned down the offer and came back to set up his own practice in the low country to care for his sick mother. Thus, began his life-long career in the greater Charleston area. Hoffman recalled giving house visits to patients in John’s Island, which was largely rural back then, and confronting various forms of folk medicine. He’d seen people leaving an ax underneath the bed during labor, to “cut the pain”, or a pair of husband’s trousers on the bed; he encountered numerous oral concoctions made with herbs and roots – hornet’s nest tea, octagon soap soup, to name a few. “I’ve known some patients who died from taking turpentine (contained in the soap)”, Dr. Hoffman said. Small dose of turpentine was prescribed for back pain and fever at his time, but when folks mixed large chunks of soap with sugar and hot water and drank it down, it could cause kidney failure and urethral bleeding.9

In 1963, Dr. Hoffman travelled to Washington, D.C. and witnessed the famous Martin Luther King, Jr.  speech. “It was the most thrilling thing I’ve ever been to,” he said to Eugene Hunt and Edmund Drago seventeen years later, at eighty-two years of age. When asked about his participation in the MUSC hospital strike in 1969, he said: “But I really didn’t know very much about the strike, I wasn’t involved in it particularly” However, he did support the student activists, he stated, “kids who did the sit-in and all got arrested? … I was one of the folks who stood their bond.”10

Image of Norma Hoffman Davis and Dr. Joseph Irvin Hoffman

Dr. Hoffman practiced medicine for fifty years, retiring in 1979. His son, Joseph Irving Hoffman, III, graduated from Harvard Medical School and became an orthopedic surgent in Atlanta. His daughter, Nora Hoffman-Davis, gave an extended interview to the The Citadel Archives & Museum in 2011 about her father’s life and the evolvement of the Low Country Black community.

Source Credit

  1. A Brief Biography of Dr. Joseph Irvin Hoffman. Kenyon University, 1998, http://northbysouth.kenyon.edu/1998/health/hoffman.htm.
  2. “Oral history interview with Dr. Joseph Hoffman” Lowcountry Digital Library, Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, 10/9/1980. Transcript. https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:23391.
  3. Ibid., p. 3.
  4. Ibid., p. 11.
  5. Ibid., p. 17.
  6. Ibid., p. 21.
  7. Shannon Wait, “Cannon Street Hospital, 135 Cannon Street,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed February 24, 2022, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/24.
  8. J. Hoffman interview. p. 25-26
  9. Ibid., p. 32-33.
  10. Ibid., p. 37.
  11. Hoffman-Davis, Nora, 1940- . “ Nora Hoffman-Davis, Interview by Clarissa Wright, August 16, 2011” Lowcountry Digital Library, The Citadel Archives & Museum, 8/16/2011, accessed February 24, 2022, https://citadeldigitalarchives.omeka.net/items/show/194.

Image Credit

  1. Joseph Hoffman papers. [unprocessed], Avery Research Center, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, USA.

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