Henry Ingersoll Bowditch

Black and white portrait of a White man with light hair wearing a dark suit and sitting at a desk.
Physician and Humanitarian Henry Ingersoll Bowditch.

Massachusetts Historical Society

Quick Facts
Physician, Abolitionist, Social Reformer
Place of Birth:
Salem, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
August 9, 1808
Place of Death:
Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Death:
January 14, 1892
Place of Burial:
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cemetery Name:
Mount Auburn Cemetery

A renowned physician and humanitarian, Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch dedicated much of his life to the cause of abolition, public health, and social reform. He also played a pivotal role in providing protection and assistance to freedom seekers escaping slavery through Boston.

Born in 1808, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch grew up in Salem, Massachusetts before moving with his family to Boston in the early 1820s. He received private education and attended Harvard College. In 1832, Bowditch graduated from the Harvard School of Medicine and began his career as a physician.1

In 1835, Bowditch joined the abolitionist cause after witnessing the mobbing of William Lloyd Garrison, the anti-slavery editor of the Liberator. On that day, a pro-slavery mob attacked Garrison on the streets of Boston for his outspoken calls for the immediate end to slavery. Horrified, Bowditch said, "'I am an Abolitionist from this very moment, and to-morrow I will subscribe for Garrison's Liberator.'"2

Bowditch played a crucial role in Boston's response to the 1842 arrest of freedom seeker George Latimer. Along with two others, Bowditch formed the Latimer Committee and published The Latimer Journal and North Star. Because of the pressure and public outcry led by Bowditch and others, local officials ultimately allowed Bostonians to purchase Latimer's freedom rather than send him back to slavery.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Bowditch continued to work on behalf of freedom seekers who came to Boston. He helped organized the second Boston Vigilance Committee in 1846 that held meetings at his home at 8 Otis Place. Following the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Bowditch joined the third and final Boston Vigilance Committee and served on the Finance Committee of that organization. He donated as well as collected funds to support the fugitive assistance work of the Boston Vigilance Committee.4

Bowditch participated in Boston's most well-known Fugitive Slave Law cases. When slave hunters came to the city in search of Ellen and William Craft, he helped move them to various safe houses in the area.5 Although unable to prevent the arrest and return of both Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns, Bowditch bore witness and protested at both renditions along with other abolitionists. Following the Burns case, Bowditch then helped organized the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League, which vowed to kidnap and remove the threat of slave catchers who came looking for freedom seekers.

In addition to providing assistance to freedom seekers, he also participated in other anti-slavery work. Bowditch served in the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society.6 He also supported the Free Soil movement, attempting to curb the expansion of slavery in the western territories of the United States.7 Reflecting on his life, Bowditch said, "I was led to assume the title of being an 'anti-slavery fighter'; which I now hold to be the proudest title I can ever hold during my life."8

Bowditch also dedicated himself to other reform causes. He joined the Boston School Committee as an ardent supporter of the desegregation efforts of William Cooper Nell and others.9 He participated in the movement for women's equality.10 As a doctor, he served as the president of the American Medical Association and pushed for public health measures including the creation of health boards at all levels of government.11 During the U.S. Civil War, he volunteered his medical services to the war effort and pushed for the establishment of an ambulance corps to bring assistance to soldiers on the front.12

Upon his death in 1892, his longtime friend Frederick Douglass wrote of Bowditch as a dedicated man of action:

While Dr. Bowditch was not as prominent at our anti-slavery meetings as many others, whenever there was an opportunity to do something more tangible than discussion the friends of freedom could always rely upon his earnest and generous support.13


  1. American Reformers: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary (New York : H.W. Wilson Co., 1985), 103-104, accessed September 2021,
  2. Stephen Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (Penguin: New York, 2012), 78.
  3. Manisha Sinha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 391-393.
  4. See Francis Jackson’s Account Book for numerous entries of donations given or collected by Bowditch. Account Book of Francis Jackson, Treasurer The Vigilance Committee of Boston, Dr. Irving H. Bartlett collection, 1830-1880, W. B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives,  
  5. Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom 185.
  6. Liberator, February 7, 1851,
  7. Boston Evening Transcript, November 7, 1850,
  8. "In Memoriam," Woman's Journal 23, no. 4, January 23, 1892, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass, seq. 37,
  9. Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom, 81.
  10. "In Memoriam," Woman's Journal 23, no. 4, January 23, 1892.
  11. American Reformers: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary, 103-104.
  12. American Reformers: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary, 103-104.
  13. Boston Globe January 20, 1892,

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: January 16, 2023