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Celebrating 10 Black medical pioneers who changed healthcare

February is Black History Month, and we’re celebrating it by turning our intentions toward some of the trailblazing Black physicians, nurses, research scientists, and healthcare pioneers who not only advanced medical care throughout history, but broke down barriers in the process.

And while these individuals and their legacies are part of a history that deserves amplification outside of just one calendar month a year, Black History Month offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on the immeasurable impact of these contributions in saving or improving so many lives. From the creation of blood banking to innovating chemotherapy treatments, the achievements these trailblazers made live on in hospitals, clinics, universities, communities, and beyond.

So in honor of Black History Month, please join us in celebrating the legacies of these 10 Black healthcare pioneers:

1. James McCune Smith, MD (1813 — 1865)

James McCune Smith, MD, became the first Black American to receive a medical degree after pursuing education at the University of Glasgow when no American university would admit him. In addition to that, he was also the first Black person to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States as well as the first Black physician published in U.S. medical journals. Smith was a staunch abolitionist and even contributed the introduction to Frederick Douglass’ book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

2. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831 — 1895)

In 1864, following years of working as a nurse seeking “every opportunity to relieve the suffering of others,” Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman in the United States to receive an MD degree. In 1883 she wrote A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, which was one of the first publications about medicine written by an African American.

3. Daniel Hale Williams, MD (1856 — 1931)

Daniel Hale Williams, MD, opened the nation’s first Black-owned interracial hospital as a response to the racist staffing restrictions at many hospitals. On top of that, he’s also credited with having performed the first documented successful open-heart surgery, being the first Black cardiologist, and the first Black physician admitted to the American College of Surgeons.

4. Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904 — 1950)

Charles Richard Drew, MD, is regarded as the “father of blood banking,” thanks to his pioneering of blood preservation techniques that allowed him to establish the first large-scale blood banks. Dr. Drew also led the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and created mobile blood donation stations, before later protesting and resigning from the organization due to its policies and practice of segregating blood by race.

5. Otis F. Boykin (1920 — 1982)

Despite not being a medical professional, the impact of inventor Otis F. Boykin's work in the world of medicine is one that deserves to be celebrated. During his career, Boykin patented 28 electronic devices with his most famous being a control unit for the cardiac pacemaker that used electrical impulses to stimulate the heart and create a steady heartbeat. By enabling these control functions Boykin laid the foundation for today’s pacemakers so many rely on.

6. Solomon Carter Fuller, MD (1872 — 1953)

Solomon Carter Fuller, MD, earned a Boston University medical degree in 1897 and went on to become the first African American psychiatrist and a leading pioneer in understanding what we now know as Alzheimer’s disease. Not only was he one of five research assistants Alois Alzheimer selected to work alongside him in his Royal Psychiatric Hospital lab in Munich, but he was the first to translate much of the pivotal work into English.

7. Jane Cooke Wright, MD (1919 — 2013)

Jane Cooke Wright, MD, was the daughter of one of the first Black American graduates of Harvard Medical School and after earning her own medical degree, she went on to work alongside her father at the Cancer Research Foundation he established in 1948. There, the duo researched chemotherapy drugs that led to remissions in patients with leukemia and lymphoma. After her father’s passing in 1952, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright became the head of the Cancer Research Foundation at just 33 where she worked to create an innovative technique to test the effect of drugs on cancer cells by using patient tissue rather than laboratory mice.

She went on to work as the director of cancer chemotherapy at New York University Medical Center and became an associate dean at New York Medical College. The New York Cancer Society elected Wright as its first woman president in 1971.

8.Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (b. 1939)

While working as an intern at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964, Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD, admitted a baby with a swollen and infected hand. After her supervisor suggested the possibility that the baby suffered from sickle cell disease, Gaston committed to learning more about it and in doing so, became a leading researcher on the disease. Her 1986 study led to a national sickle cell disease screening program for newborns and in 1990, Dr. Gaston became the first black female physician to be appointed director of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care.

9. Patricia Bath, MD (1942 — 2019)

In 1973, Patricia Bath, MD, became the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency with New York University’s School of Medicine. During that time, she noticed that the rates of blindness and visual impairment were significantly higher at the Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic, which served many Black patients, than they were at the eye clinic at Columbia University, which had mostly white patients in their care. This led her to conduct a study that found twice the rate of blindness among African-Americans compared with whites and she dedicated her career to exploring the inequities in vision care.

Dr. Bath created the discipline of community ophthalmology, which approaches vision care from the perspectives of community medicine and public health. She also went on to co-found the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, inventing a device and method for cataract treatments. In doing so in 1988, she became the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention.

10. Alexa Irene Canady, MD (b. 1950)

Alexa Irene Canady, MD, became the first Black neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981. This achievement was followed by becoming the chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan just two years later. It was there where she dedicated decades of work as a pediatric neurosurgeon caring for young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, brain tumors and spine abnormalities. Dr. Canady officially retired from practicing medicine in 2012 but continues to be an advocate for encouraging young women to pursue careers in the fields of medicine and neurosurgery and her patient-centered approach to care is widely regarded.


References:

  1. Celebrating 10 African-American medical pioneers. Association of American Medical Colleges. URL. Accessed January 26, 2022.
  2. 17 African American Public Health Heroes You Need To Know. NYU School of Global Public Health. URL. Accessed January 26, 2022.
  3. Celebrating Black History Month: 12 Black American Medical Pioneers. Brighton Hospice. URL. Accessed January 26, 2022.
  4. African American Medical Pioneers. PBS. URL. Accessed January 26, 2022.
  5. The education and medical practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), first black American to hold a medical degree. Journal of the National Medical Association. URL. Accessed January 26, 2022.
  6. Recognizing African-American contributions to neurology: The role of Solomon Carter Fuller (1872–1953) in Alzheimer's disease research. Alzheimer's Association. URL. Accessed January 26, 2022.
  7. Black History Month Honors Alexa Canady, MD: First African-American Woman Neurosurgeon. Indiana University School of Medicine. URL. Accessed January 26, 2022.
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