Medical trainingAugusta applied to study medicine at the University of Pennsylvania but was refused admission. Although he faced institutionalized racism in his career, inadequate preparation was cited.Nevertheless, he took private instruction from someone on the faculty. As he was determined to become a physician, Augusta travelled to California and earned the funds necessary to pursue his goal of becoming a doctor. Concerned that he would not be allowed to enroll in medical school in the U.S., he enrolled at Trinity College of the University of Toronto in 1850. He also conducted business as a druggist and chemist. Six years later he received a degree in medicine.
Augusta remained in Toronto, Canada West, establishing his medical practice. The City of Toronto placed him in charge of Toronto General Hospital and later an industrial school. He supported local antislavery activities. He also founded the Provincial Association for the Education and Elevation of the Coloured People of Canada, a literary society that donated books and other school supplies to black children, as a way of giving back to the community. Augusta left Canada for the West Indies in about 1860, returning to Baltimore at the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861.
Civil War serviceAugusta went to Washington, D.C., wrote Abraham Lincoln offering his services as a surgeon and was given a Presidential commission in the Union Army in October 1862. On April 4, 1863, he received a major's commission as surgeon for African-American troops. This made him the United States Army's first African-American physician out of eight in the Union Army and its highest-ranking African-American officer at the time. Some whites disapproved of him having such a high rank and as such he was mobbed in Baltimore during May 1863 (where three people were arrested for assault) and in Washington for publicly wearing his officer's uniform. On October 2, 1863 he was commissioned Regimental Surgeon of the Seventh U.S. Colored Troops.
On February 1, 1864, Augusta wrote to Judge Advocate Captain C. W. Clippington about discrimination against African-American passengers on the streetcars (most likely horse-drawn) of Washington, D.C.:
His letter was printed in New York and Washington newspapers. On February 10, 1864, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner introduced a resolution in Congress:Sir: I have the honor to report that I have been obstructed in getting to the court this morning by the conductor of car No. 32, of the Fourteenth Street line of the city railway. I started from my lodgings to go to the hospital I formerly had charge of to get some notes of the case I was to give evidence in, and hailed the car at the corner of Fourteenth and I streets. It was stopped for me and when I attempted to enter the conductor pulled me back, and informed me that I must ride on the front with the driver as it was against the rules for colored persons to ride inside. I told him, I would not ride on the front, and he said I should not ride at all. He then ejected me from the platform, and at the same time gave orders to the driver to go on. I have therefore been compelled to walk the distance in the mud and rain, and have also been delayed in my attendance upon the court.
I therefore most respectfully request that the offender may be arrested and brought to punishment.
To support his resolution, Sumner read to the assemblage Dr. Augusta's letter.Resolved, That the Committee on the District of Columbia be directed to consider the expediency of further providing by law against the exclusion of colored persons from the equal enjoyment of all railroad privileges in the District of Columbia.
Edward Bates, the Attorney General in President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, belittled the incident and senators who supported Sumner.
Augusta wrote a letter of protest against the unfair treatment put upon African Americans who ride trains to Major General Lewis Wallace. That letter preceded Plessy vs Ferguson in attempting to eliminate racial segregation on transportation in the U.S. On March 13, 1865, he was brevetted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
On February 26, 1868, Augusta testified before the United States congressional Committee on the District of Columbia with regard to Mrs. Kate Brown. Mrs. Brown, an employee of Congress, had been injured when an employee of the Alexandria, Washington, and Georgetown Railroad forcibly ejected her from a passenger car. The railroad was prohibited by its charter from discrimination against passenger because of race.
Later yearsMustering out of the service in October 1866, Augusta accepted an assignment with the Freedman's Bureau, heading the agency's Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia. While there, he encouraged African-American self-help, urged the freedmen to support independent institutions, and gained respect from the city's white physicians.
Augusta returned to private practice in Washington, D.C. He was attending surgeon to the Smallpox Hospital in Washington in 1870. He also served on the staff of the local Freedmen's Hospital and was placed in charge of the hospital in 1863, becoming the first black hospital administrator in U.S. history. Augusta taught anatomy in the recently organized medical department at Howard University from November 8, 1868, to July 1877, becoming the first African American appointed faculty of the school and also of any medical college in the U.S. He had received honorary degrees of M.D. in 1869 and A.M. in 1871 from Howard.
Despite his accomplishments, Dr Augusta was repeatedly refused entry to the local society of physicians, an affront that he feared would impede the progress of younger African-American physicians in the city. He died in Washington on December 21, 1890, interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery he is buried in Section 1, Lot 124A, map grid G/33.