Before recent months, the most infamous medical crisis in our history was the influenza epidemic of 1918, right as World War I ended, that claimed 675,000 lives in the U.S. and an estimated 50 million worldwide.


It came at the time of the consolidation of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation — yet St. Augustine’s greatest hero of the epidemic was our pioneer black physician, Dr. D. W. Roberts.


Even before that time, newspapers around the country had marked him as an extraordinary person. The story was told of how the Indiana native, born a year after the end of slavery, and not even beginning high school until he was 21 years old, had worked as a janitor at a religious publishing house to put himself through medical school in Chicago.


After graduating with honors in 1896, he headed south to St. Augustine — then still in its phase as Henry Flagler’s “Winter Newport” — thinking to stay only a short time. Instead, he fell in love with the place and settled permanently. He established our first (and only) black hospital at 80 Bridge St., and a visiting journalist noted that “in it are often found persons of both races.”


In 1908, the editor of the Epworth Herald, who had known him as “Dan the janitor” back in Chicago, paid a visit and wrote that Roberts had “become one of the leading physicians in Florida” with “probably the largest practice in the state.”


Recounting the inspirational tale, he continued: “His career, full of hardship and sacrifice as it was in the earlier years, and full of triumph and useful services as it is in his later years, is a fine illustration of what a young man can do… even if his skin is black!”


Roberts invested in local talent. He was chairman of the board of the St. Augustine Industrial Institute, a private school in West Augustine. When a young white boy worked on an invention in the new field of aviation, he did so with financial aid from the doctor. When E. A. Welters, our pioneer black dentist, developed a tooth powder and set up a company to manufacture it, Roberts was one of the incorporators. (Welters later moved to Chicago and served four years in the Illinois legislature.)


Lottie Pierson spent her high school summers working in Roberts’ office. Recognizing her talent, he paid for her to go to school in Tallahassee, and she came back to spend more than 60 years as a well-regarded nurse in St. Augustine. (Her nephew, Thomas A. Johnson, went on to become the first black reporter for the New York Times in 1966.)


The doctor donated stained glass windows to several local churches, which can still be seen today. He served as president of the State Medical Association of Colored Physicians, spoke at the Emancipation Day celebration in Tampa, was active in Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, and campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose party in the 1912 presidential election. He was a director of the African Union Company, formed in 1913 to handle African produce and make it available to the world, in order to aid development there.


It was reported that in his early years of practice, he covered such a large territory in the rural areas from Bayard to Flagler County, that he had to keep three horses always at the ready.


By 1911, he had graduated to the newfangled automobile, and made headlines that year when it was reported “THE LONGEST JAUNT IN AN AUTOMOBILE EVER UNDERTAKEN BY COLORED MEN.” Roberts and two companions in his 45 horsepower Glide automobile made a 1,400-mile journey from St. Augustine to Indianapolis to attend a convention of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization in which he was a prominent member. The journey took two weeks, with the predictable mishaps of those times, and was the talk of the convention when they arrived.


When the terrible flu epidemic came in 1918, Roberts is said to have seen more than three times as many patients as any other doctor here, spread over a much wider area. He wrote as many as 60 prescriptions a day, and not only treated his own patients, but shared his knowledge with doctors as far away as Jacksonville and Daytona Beach about how best to treat the sick. In the midst of this whirlwind, he was said to have never lost a patient to the deadly flu.


But it was not without cost to himself. An auto accident crushed part of his chest, leaving him additionally vulnerable, and in February 1919, though only 52 years old, suffering from double pneumonia, he knew his days were numbered.


“He had arranged most of his business affairs, selected his casket, made all arrangements with the undertaker,” the press reported, and “he went up to his bedroom, knelt and prayed and lay down never to rise again in this life.” After “the largest colored funeral ever held in this city,” his body was sent to his native Indiana for burial.


But that was not the end of the story.


Roberts’ admirers — even including some former Confederates — raised money and hired George Leaphart, a Jacksonville stonemason and sculptor to create an appropriate memorial. Completed in 1925 and dedicated on Nov. 8 of that year, a two-tone marble baptismal font with appropriate inscriptions and designs was installed at St. Paul A.M.E. Church at 85 Martin Luther King Ave., where the doctor had long been a prominent member.


By the 1930s, the baptismal font had become a tourist attraction, together with the gripping story of the doctor it honored. It was written up by the Florida Writers Project of the New Deal, and even into the 21st century, a tourism website has noted: “Dr. Roberts’ baptismal font is one of St. Augustine’s historic treasures.” Among those baptized there was there was the late Carrie Johnson, “the Voice of Lincolnville,” for whom a street in the area is scheduled to be renamed.


In 2014, local artist Jean Troemel, 93, did a large portrait of Roberts, based on material in the St. Augustine Historical Society Library, and it was placed in the lobby of the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center in the historic Excelsior School building at 102 Martin Luther King Ave.


Indeed, Roberts, gone for over a century, has proved to be a gift that keeps on giving to the Ancient City.


After The Record ran an article about him in 2004, it came to the attention of one of his relatives who worked for BET (Black Entertainment Television), and a crew was sent here to do a story. The late Rita Kass, then in her 90s, had lived next door to Roberts back in the day and had once taken her young brother, injured in some mishap, to be treated “across the color line,” as it were. She told her story on national television — the interview being somewhat complicated by the fact that, at her advanced age, she shared the hearing problems not uncommon among nonagenarians!


It had been planned just to do that one story, but the crew was so impressed with the rich black history of St. Augustine that they wound up doing a whole week’s worth of features — thanks to Dr. D. W. Roberts.


When the current restrictions are lifted, those who have not yet seen the famous baptismal font at St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the portrait of Roberts at the Lincolnville Museum will want to make a point of doing so.


Roberts’ home at 86 Bridge St. is still standing, though without a historic marker. But don’t bother looking for his hospital, the Roberts Sanitarium, at 80 Bridge St. The city tore it down in recent years for a parking lot.


David Nolan is a local historian.