Dr. William Baldwin Ellis was one of thirteen African Americans to serve as physicians in the Civil War. He died young and few details are known of his life. Born in New York City, Ellis apprenticed in Brooklyn with Dr. Peter Ray before attending lectures at Dartmouth Medical College. He graduated in 1858 and established a practice in Philadelphia.
In the early years of the Civil War, Ellis wrote to Edward C. Mauran, Adjutant General of Rhode Island, to request an Union Army medical staff appointment. Emphasizing his education, skill, and natural desire and suitability to work with colored brethren, Ellis gained an appointment as an acting assistant surgeon.
After war service, Dr. Ellis worked at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D. C., the first U.S. public hospital for African Americans. He was on hand to assist Sojourner Truth when she was accosted by a white train conductor. She promptly sued the conductor, commenting, 'It is hard for the old slaveholding spirit to die, but die it must.' Dr. Ellis treated her injuries at Freedman’s and testified in court to support her complaint. Tubman’s papers refer to her friendship with Dr. Ellis.
In 1866 Dr. Ellis died from typhoid fever in Washington D. C. while treating recently freed slaves. A wife and three young children survived him.