John Swett Rock, one of the first Black Americans to obtain a medical degree, also had a successful career as a teacher, doctor, dentist, abolitionist, and lawyer. Rock was born in Salem County, New Jersey, on October 13, 1825. Rock grew up in a slave-free state, but with modest means; his parents rejected the common, but often necessary, practice of putting black children to work instead of attending school. His family encouraged his education up until the age of 18.
At age 19, proficient in Greek and Latin, Rock took a position as a teacher at a Black public grammar school in the town of Salem. However, he had other ambitions for his future. During 1844–1848, he apprenticed himself to two white doctors, Quinton Gibbon and Jacob Sharpe, and immersed himself in their libraries each day after his teaching duties were completed.
Even though he was highly qualified, he was initially not accepted to medical school. In 1849, he became certified as a dentist, and in 1852, he ultimately succeeded in earning a medical degree, making him one of the first African Americans to do so. After graduating from medical school, Rock moved to Boston to practice dentistry and medicine.
In addition to his passion for the health sciences, Rock was also an abolitionist and civil rights leader. He held a strong belief in the dignity and rights for all Americans. Like other abolitionists in the movement, such as George T. Downing and Robert Purvis, Rock became a renowned public speaker and campaigned for equal rights. He was a part of the National Equal Rights League with other famous abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, and John Mercer Langston.
When Rock’s health began to decline, he gave up his medical and dental practices and started to study law. In 1865, one day after slavery was officially abolished, he was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.