081: Dr William Peter Powell, 1834-1916

William Peter Powell left America with his six brothers and sisters in the winter of 1850, travelling with his namesake father (who ran a seamen’s home in New York) and mother Mercy Haskins. She was a native American and her husband was of African descent. ‘He had come to this country to procure for his children that education and means of supporting themselves denied them in Boston on account of their colour’ was noted in Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal of 8 February 1851. William had wanted to work in medicine and found employment as an apothecary difficult to come by. He studied medicine and qualified in 1857-1858 (L.M., Dublin 1857; M.R.C.S. England 1858) and worked as a house surgeon at St Anne’s District Hospital, Liverpool and on a temporary basis at the Liverpool South Hospital (according to page 667 of the Medical Directory, 1859).

The family returned to New York where Powell and three brothers served in the Federal army – Edward (b 1836), Sylvester (b 1838) and Isaiah (b 1842) with William becoming one of thirteen African American surgeons (he worked in Washington DC). Where they went to school in England is unknown, but their father’s address in March 1856 and in January 1859 was 113 Field Street, Everton and he worked for Christopher Bushell, a marine broker, in Dale Street, Liverpool. Mercy was born in 1840, her invalid sister Sarah in 1846, and Samuel in 1849.

Dr Powell worked in California but was back in north west England in 1902 where, on 7 June he was present at 46 Prescot Street, West Derby when his 59-year-old brother Isaiah Amos Powell died from asthma. He was a cooper (barrel maker). Isaiah was based in America but crossed the Atlantic, for his name is on passenger lists. His death was registered on 9 June 1902. Powell, whose correspondence with the US veterans’ associations is still in Washington, fought for a pension. Dr Powell died at the Kirkdale Home in Kirkdale, West Derby on 12 April 1916 aged 81. The death registration said he had died from senile decay, had been living at 1 Cotton Street, Liverpool (which was a lodging house by the docks) and had been ‘a Doctor of Medicine’. His name has not been traced in Medical reference books in the 1910s but that would not have prevented him working as a private doctor in Liverpool. His files in Washington DC indicate he was the last surviving child. His photograph in army uniform, August 1863 can be located (put William Peter Powell into your search engine) and at nlm.gov/exhibition/bindingwounds as well as Jill L. Newmark’s ‘Face to Face with History’ at archives.gov/publications.

His father’s work from the 1830s and again from 1860 assisting black sailors in New York has been recognised by the US seamen’s union. The American National Biography states he died in 1879. The British education of the seven Powell children, other than William Jr’s studies in Dublin and London, is untraced. The British census of 1881 shows Mercy Powell, a Massachusetts-born widow aged 65 who was a shopkeeper and her daughter Sarah resident in Gwydir Street, Toxteth, Liverpool. There was a 16 year old nephew William P. P. Stowe, born in Norfolk USA (probably Virginia). New York city death records show that Sarah died there on 25 February 1889: single, aged 43, a ‘housewife’.

How long the mother ran her Liverpool shop is unknown. Her son Isaiah Amos Powell worked in the Liverpool area as a barrel maker.  Despite the US government doubting that Dr Powell was qualified, the belief that a fire destroyed his British certificates, suggestions that Powell Sr died en route to Hawaii in 1875, and the wrong year of death given on an American website, the story of Dr Powell and his family is yet another aspect of the Black Atlantic that needs investigation.

Dr William Peter Powell, Washington DC, August 1863.

My thanks to Jill Newmark of Bethesda, Maryland.

An early version of this research was published in BASA Newsletter 59, March 2011, pp 3-6.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.