Herman Aladdin Barnett III, surgeon and anesthesiologist, civic leader, World War II fighter pilot, and member of the Tuskegee airmen, was born in Austin, Texas, on January 22, 1926, to Hencil Barnett and Lula (Searcy) Barnett. He married Wylma Lynn White of Beaumont, Texas, and they had five children: Herman A., Jr.; Marcus; Keith; Lynetta Kay; and April Michelle. Barnett attended Grant Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas; Kealing Junior High and L. C. Anderson High School in Austin, Texas, and received his diploma from the Phillis Wheatley High School in 1943. From 1944 to 1946 Barnett was a fighter pilot in the United States Army Air Forces and later accepted a commission of indefinite term in the Medical Reserve Corps of the United States Air Force. He flew with the 332nd Fighter Group and emerged from segregated training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.
After his stint as a fighter pilot, Barnett returned to academics at Samuel Huston College (later merged with Tillotson College). He worked at Huston College as an assistant in the department of chemistry, taught summer courses in biology, and completed his undergraduate degree with honors in 1949. In 1949 Barnett broke the color barrier at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, as the institution’s first African-American medical student. Although he had gained admittance to Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, he was urged by the NAACP to attend UTMB. With financial backing from the Lone Star State Medical Association, the Sweatt Victory Fund, and African-American newspaper mogul Carter Walker Wesley, Barnett’s supporters pledged to raise funds for a lawsuit if he was not admitted. In order to avoid violating state segregation laws and a precedent-setting lawsuit, the State of Texas decided to enroll Barnett at Texas Southern University but allowed him to attend medical classes at UTMB beginning in 1949. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which paid his tuition through the G. I. Bill, refused to recognize this arrangement. As a result, he was officially enrolled as a regular student at UTMB in the fall of 1950. While in medical school, Barnett had to overcome oppressive Jim Crow laws and hardened racial prejudice in the South, including a beating by a Galveston County sheriff’s deputy. Despite this, he graduated cum laude and was licensed to practice medicine in Texas in 1953. He also received the Charles A. Pfizer Award in 1950, and his postgraduate study was supported by National Medical Fellowships, Inc. (1955–58).
After a rotating internship in the University of Texas hospitals, he remained for a four-year residency in general surgery in these institutions. Barnett completed his internship and surgical residency at the medical branch hospitals, specializing in trauma and focusing on the physiological changes bodies experience in emergencies and during post-operative recoveries. From 1966 to 1968 Barnett completed a secondary residency in anesthesia at St. Joseph Hospital, Houston, Texas. During his career, he was affiliated with numerous hospitals: Hermann, Lockwood, St. Elizabeth’s, Riverside General, Galveston County Memorial, UTMB, and St. Joseph hospitals. He was chief of surgery at three of these hospitals: St. Elizabeth’s, Riverside General, and Lockwood.
In addition to being the first African American to graduate from a Texas medical school, Barnett became the first African American to serve on the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners after his appointment by Governor John Connally in 1968. He also became the first African American elected president of the Houston Independent School District Board of Education in 1973. His honors include a fellowship from the American Cancer Society in the study of carcinogenic effect of sulfonamides; a fellowship from the National Medical Fellowship, Inc.; the Omega Psi Phi Citizenship Award; and the Huston-Tillotson Achievement Award. In addition, he was a trustee of Huston-Tillotson College, president of the board of the Northeast Houston Investment Corporation, and a member of the board of directors of Lockwood National Bank in Houston.
Barnett was active in the following professional organizations: American Medical Association, Texas Medical Association, Harris County Medical Society, Mu Delta Honorary Society, and Chi Delta Mu Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Society. He also served on the executive committees of the Lone Star State Medical Association and Houston Medical Forum, and he served on the board of trustees of the National Medical Association from 1968 to 1971.
Throughout his life Barnett remained an avid aviator, and in 1968 he co-founded the Bronze Eagle Flying Club, which hosted an annual Memorial Day exhibition. On May 27, 1973, Barnett was killed in a plane crash when his private, twin-engined airplane was caught up in unexpected crosswinds. His fatal accident occurred while he was in Wichita, Kansas, attending an air show sponsored by the Black Airmen’s International Convention, an organization of World War II pilots. At the time of his death, Barnett was chief of surgery at the Lockwood Hospital in Houston and president of the Board of Education of the Houston Independent School District. He was forty-seven, leaving a wife and five children, two of whom became medical doctors. He was buried in Houston National Cemetery. To commemorate Barnett’s numerous contributions to the African-American and medical communities, his friends established the Herman Barnett Memorial Award which is given to an outstanding medical student annually since his death. Likewise, UTMB established the Herman A. Barnett Distinguished Endowed Professorship in Microbiology and Immunology and posthumously awarded him the Ashbel Smith Award, the school’s highest honor. In addition, he was posthumously awarded the 28th Distinguished Service Medal of the National Medical Association on August 13, 1973, and the Houston Independent School District named Herman A. Barnett stadium in his honor.