June 9, 2023
Dr. Tolbert Small is a hero of service and healing, as lead physician for the Black Panther Party and one of the first doctors outside of the Asian American community to practice acupuncture in the United States, and is still a practicing physician in the Bay Area. It might be possible you don’t know all of his incredible contributions to his community and the nation when you meet him at his doctor’s office. But in honor of Juneteenth, we want to take a moment to celebrate the activist, the healer, and “the People’s Doctor”, Dr. Tolbert Small.
Dr. Tolbert Small was an activist before he was a healer, and began fighting for civil rights in college at University of Detroit in Detroit, Michigan. On campus he co-founded a student chapter of the NAACP, and decided to study medicine. He graduated from Wayne State School of Medicine, and moved for residency at Highland Hospital, here in Oakland, California.
Inspired by the activism and connection he found while in Oakland, Dr. Small boldly approached the Black Panther Party. He offered to work pro bono, and became their primary physician in 1970. Dr. Small cared deeply about offering health care to the Black community due to the inequities he saw. He acted as Medical Director at the George Jackson Free Medical Center in Berkeley, and opened The People’s Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, both creating access to health care, support, and education for many Black Americans.
With the Black Panther Party, he was invited to join their trip to China. On this trip, Dr. Small and other leaders observed the “barefoot doctors’ movement”, where people trained in basic healthcare, including acupuncture, offer treatments to underserved populations. Dr. Small returned home energized, and taught himself how to treat with acupuncture, becoming one of the first physicians in the United States to practice it.
He then went on to practice medicine and acupuncture in a variety of settings in Northern California, including caring for patients in San Quentin and Folsom Prison, and later opening the Harriet Tubman Medical Office in Oakland with his wife, Anola. He stayed at the Harriet Tubman Medical Office from 1980 until 2016 when it sadly closed.
Dr. Tolbert Small Today
Today, Dr. Tolbert Small continues to offer healing through internal medicine and acupuncture to his patients in the Bay Area. He also continues his activism through poetry and writing, and has published a book, Resistencia, Love, Healing that is available for purchase. Here is one of our favorite poems, that is especially appropriate for aspiring and practicing acupuncturists and healers:
To the Healers (and Their Patients Who Have the Right to be Healed)
We toiled for years to learn the mystery of the human body.
We nourish spirits from birth to the grave.
We mend the bones.
We sew the cuts.
We kill the pain.
We cool the fevers.
We soothe the spirits.
We are healers.
We bring new life.
We close old life.
We pick the herbs.
We needle away the pain.
We cut out the cancer.
We poison the germs.
We calm the troubled minds.
We are healers.
We treat the whole body as one universe.
We treat each part of this universe.
We keep the hearts pumping.
We keep the lungs breathing.
We know, as long as life exists,
We will be healers.
- Meng, E. (2020, February 2). “Dr. Tolbert Small.” Of Part and Parcel. https://www.ofpartandparcel.com/blog-2/dr-tolbert-small
- Dr. Tolbert Small: The People’s Doctor. (2020, July 27). https://the-peoples-doctor.com/