Recognizing Ten Trailblazing African American Doctors
They fought opposed slavery, discrimination, and injustice while also revolutionizing American medicine. They played significant roles in the formation of the contemporary blood banking system and the United States government. For some motivation this Black History Month, check out these biographies of 10 trailblazing black doctors.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, after working as a nurse for a while, earned the first medical degree for a black woman in the United States in 1864. This honor was bestowed to her after she graduated as the first and only black student from New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts. Crumpler relocated to Richmond, Virginia, at the end of the Civil War, where she joined other black doctors in the Freedmen’s Bureau to care for former slaves. Crumpler regarded the experience to be formative, despite the sexism and other sorts of mistreatment she endured. “I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in some measure, of remuneration,” she wrote.
A Book of Medical Discourses, Divided into Two Volumes, was also authored by Crumpler. The book, which came out in 1883, is addressed to “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” It focuses on women’s and children’s health.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no photographs of Rebecca Lee Crumpler exist.
Physician James McCune Smith was a pioneer in many ways. Despite having to attend the University of Glasgow Medical School due to the discriminatory entrance policies of American medical colleges, he became the first black American to get a medical degree in 1837. And it wasn’t even the most impressive thing he did. In addition to being the first African-American doctor to be included in peer-reviewed American medical journals, he also opened the first black-owned drugstore in the country.
Smith used his literary skills to refute prejudiced and inaccurate scientific assumptions about African Americans. Importantly, Thomas Jefferson disproved such ideas in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Smith was a close friend of Frederick Douglass and a dedicated abolitionist. He penned the book’s preface for My Bondage and My Freedom and contributed to Douglass’ newspaper.
Leonidas Harris Berry, MD, a distinguished gastroenterologist, experienced racism in the medical field. After years of struggle, Berry became the hospital’s first black attending physician at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital in 1946. He pleaded with the hospital’s trustee board committee, “I have spent many years of crushing disappointment at the threshold of opportunity, keeping my lamps trimmed and bright for a bride that never came.” In 1963, he was promoted to senior attending status, where he stayed for the rest of his career.
During the 1950s, Berry presided over a Chicago commission that aimed to improve access to healthcare for neglected communities and increase the number of hospitals that would hire black doctors. In addition to his work as a doctor, he was also involved in the civil rights organization United Front, which helped black citizens of Cairo, Illinois who had been the targets of racial violence. In 1970, he was a part of the group that would become known as the Flying Black Medics; these doctors and nurses flew from Chicago to Cairo to provide services and health education to the underserved population there.
Charles Richard Drew, MD, the “father of blood banking,” developed groundbreaking methods for preserving blood, which resulted in thousands of lifesaving blood donations. Drew’s doctoral dissertation examined optimal methods for storing and distributing blood, and his findings informed the first large-scale blood banks. During World War II, Drew oversaw the Blood for Britain operation, which sent plasma shipments to England. After that, Drew oversaw the establishment of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and the development of the bloodmobile, an on-the-go facility for collecting blood donations. Drew’s efforts, however, were not without difficulty. He quit after objecting to the American Red Cross’ practice of racial segregation within its blood donation system.
Despite his notoriety in the field of blood banking, Drew’s true calling was in the operating room. He became the head surgeon and department chair at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital) in Washington, D.C. He did a lot during his time there to encourage young African-Americans to pursue jobs in the field.
Dr. Louis Wade Sullivan’s formative years were spent in the segregated 1930s rural South. There, he was encouraged by Dr. Joseph Griffin. “He was the only black doctor within a hundred mile radius,” Sullivan claimed of the doctor. Dr. Griffin impressed me as someone who was making a significant contribution to the world and who enjoyed widespread acclaim.
Sullivan evolved become an equally formidable motivational force throughout the years. From 1966 through 1975, he was the sole black student in his class at the Boston University School of Medicine. He was appointed the first African-American dean of a U.S. medical school in 1975, when the Morehouse School of Medicine opened in Atlanta. After that, Sullivan became secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, where he oversaw the establishment of the Office of Minority Programs inside the Director’s Office of the National Institutes of Health.
Sullivan has served as the head of a wide variety of organizations, from the National Health Museum to the President’s Advisory Council on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He founded the Sullivan Alliance in 2005 with the goal of increasing the number of members from underrepresented groups in the medical industry.
Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD, had a formative experience admitting an infant with an infected, swollen hand while she was a resident at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964. It hadn’t occurred to Gaston that the infant might have sickle cell illness until her supervisor brought it up. Right away, Gaston made it her mission to educate herself on the subject and soon established herself as a preeminent expert in the field. Her seminal research in 1986 paved the way for a nationwide newborn screening program for sickle cell disease, and she went on to become deputy branch chief of the Sickle Cell Disease Branch at the National Institutes of Health. Her findings confirmed the need of prenatal screening for sickle cell illness and the efficacy of penicillin in preventing sepsis, an infection that can be fatal in children with sickle cell disease.
When Gaston was appointed director of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care in 1990, she made history as the first black female physician to hold that position. She was the second black woman in the United States Public Health Service and the first to reach the rank of rear admiral. Every accolade bestowed by the Public Health Service has been bestowed to Gaston.
Patricia Era Bath, MD, had an epiphany during her internship in New York City in the 1960s. First African-American to complete an ophthalmology residency, Bath found that the Harlem Hospital eye clinic, which treated primarily black patients, had considerably greater rates of blindness and visual impairment than the Columbia University eye clinic, which treated primarily white patients. That realization prompted her to investigate further, and her findings revealed that African Americans had double the rate of blindness as whites. Bath spent the remainder of her career investigating gaps in access to eye care. Community ophthalmology, which she pioneered, is an approach to eye treatment that takes public health and community medicine into account.
Additionally, in 1976, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which funds initiatives to prevent blindness, preserve eye health, and restore sight. In 1983, at the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine, Bath made history by becoming the first woman to hold the position of chair of ophthalmology in the United States. In 1988, she received a medical patent as the first black female doctor for the Laserphaco Probe, a tool used in cataract surgery.
Herbert W. Nickens, MD, laid the groundwork for advancing the health of racial and ethnic minorities across the country as the first director of the Office of Minority Health at the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1986. Nickens departed the HHS to become the first vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Division of Community and Minority Programs, which is currently called Diversity Policy and Programs. He oversaw the American Association of Medical Colleges’ (AAMC) Project 3000 by 2000, which was initiated in 1991 with the aim of increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups enrolling in medical schools in the United States by 2000.
After Nickens’ death in 1999, AAMC President Jordan J. Cohen, MD, observed, “No one in recent memory did more than Herbert Nickens to bridge the painful and persistent diversity gap in medicine.” To reward exceptional medical students, junior faculty, and those who have made substantial contributions toward social justice in academic medicine and health care equity, the AAMC presents three prizes bearing Nickens’ name annually.
Dr. Alexa Irene Canady almost didn’t finish college because of a low self-esteem issue, but she overcame it and went on to great success in medicine. She made history when she graduated from medical school in 1981 as the first black neurosurgeon in the United States, and she continued to break barriers as she quickly advanced to the position of chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
Canady was ready to retire to Florida in 2001 after a long and fruitful career as a pediatric neurosurgeon. However, she put on her surgical garb once more and began working part-time at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, where a severe lack of pediatric neurosurgical services was causing serious problems. Canady has been praised for her patient-centered treatment, which she has described as beneficial to her professional development. I was afraid that as a black woman, I wouldn’t get many chances to practice. A key difference, she said, was that “by being patient-centered, the practice growth was exponential.”
Dr. Regina Marcia Benjamin, MBA, served as the first chair of the National Prevention Council during her time as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General. The National Prevention Strategy was created by a coalition of 17 federal departments with the goal of bettering Americans’ health and well-being.
But her accomplishments at lower levels of government in the realm of public health are just as noteworthy. Benjamin’s involvement with rural areas in the South dates back far before she was named “the nation’s doctor” in 2009. She established BayouClinic, a non-profit organization that offers medical care, social services, and health education to the people of Bayou La Batre, Louisiana. The clinic had been destroyed by fire in 2006 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Benjamin helped rebuild both times. She stated she opened the clinic so that patients may “receive health care with dignity” and “make a difference in my community.”