Infectious Disease

Celebrating Black Pioneers of Medication

February 17, 2021

8 min read

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The Association for the Study of African American Life and History instituted an annual celebration and recognition of Black history in 1926.

The observance began as a national weeklong event. By the 1960s, it had evolved into a monthlong commemoration. Despite its lengthy past, Black History Month only became formally recognized in 1976 by President Gerald Ford.

Dr. Charles Drew of the Medical Corps of the Office of Civilian Defense in the United States practicing treating air raid victims. Source: United States National Archives

President Ford said of the occasion, “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Black Americans have had, and continue to have, a significant impact on the formation and development of modern medicine. Without their achievements, the methods used for treating disease, cancer and surgery would look very different today. The following are a few individuals who have made historic achievements in the field of medicine.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Born in Delaware, Rebecca Lee Crumpler later moved to Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse for 8 years prior to the opening of the first formal nursing school. In 1864, she graduated from New England Female Medical College, becoming the first Black woman in the country to earn a medical degree. Shortly after her graduation, and upon the conclusion of the Civil War, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, for a period to treat freed slaves who lacked medical care. She was also one of the first Black physicians to publish a medical text; “A Book of Medical Disclosures” was released in 1883.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Born to freed slaves in Boston, Mary Eliza Mahoney actively pursued a career as a nurse. After working at New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years, Mahoney was admitted into the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. In 1879, she graduated as the first Black American to earn a professional nursing license. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The association later created the Mary Mahoney Award in her honor to celebrate nurses who promote integration within their field. The award is still bestowed today by the American Nurses Association.

Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931)

Passionate about receiving an education, at age 20 Daniel Hale Williams became an apprentice to a surgeon. In 1883, he graduated with his medical degree from Chicago Medical College. Equitable medical education became a priority for him, and he went on to find the country’s first interracial hospital and nursing school: Provident Hospital and Training School in Chicago.

Notably, in 1893 Williams became the first American surgeon to successfully complete an open-heart surgery. His patient, who presented with a stab wound to the chest, went on to live 20 more years. As a pioneer for heart surgery, Williams became the first Black person to be inducted into the American College of Surgeons. He also helped found the National Medical Association, which welcomed Black physicians, unlike the AMA at the time.

Solomon Carter Fuller (1872-1953)

Born in Liberia, at age 17 Solomon Carter Fuller immigrated to the U.S. He earned his medical degree from Boston University in 1897 and dedicated his work to psychiatry, becoming the first Black American psychiatrist. He worked as a research assistant for psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer in Munich, Germany, and became the first to translate Alzheimer’s research into English. Fuller published what is now considered the first comprehensive review of Alzheimer’s disease. In the U.S., he continued researching Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses.

William Augustus Hinton (1883-1959)

Born to freed slaves, William Augustus Hinton began his education at the University of Kansas. He graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School in 1912. His race made it difficult for him to secure a surgical residency, but he eventually became the first Black professor at Harvard Medical School, and his research as a bacteriologist and pathologist gained him international recognition. In 1927, he published a study introducing the “Hinton test,” a blood-serum test for syphilis which proved effective. The United States Public Health Service adopted the test in 1934.

Louis T. Wright (1891-1952)

Following in his father’s footsteps, Louis T. Wright pursued a career in medicine. In 1915, he graduated from Harvard Medical School and received training at Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital. He then returned to his home state of Georgia and helped found Atlanta’s NAACP chapter. While serving in World War I, Wright developed the intradermal injection vaccination technique. He resumed his medical career after his service, and in 1919, Wright became the first Black physician hired at Harlem Hospital in New York City, eventually becoming the director of surgery there. In 1948, he received recognition as the first physician to research the use of Aureomycin as a treatment for humans.

Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950)

Though a passionate surgeon, Charles Richard Drew is most known today for his work with blood plasma. Called the “father of blood banking,” Drew developed revolutionary blood preservation and transfusion techniques that have saved countless lives. He headed the Blood for Britain project during World War II, which implemented his blood storage and transfusion findings. Subsequently, Drew led the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and instituted the bloodmobiles that we have today. He also fought against blood segregation by race in the Red Cross.

Helen Octavia Dickens (1909-2001)

Helen Octavia Dickens graduated with her medical degree from the University of Illinois in 1934, then completing an internship at Provident Hospital, founded by Daniel Hale Williams. She focused her attention on obstetrics and gynecologic care, eventually receiving specialized training at Provident. Dickens was later certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

In 1950, she became the first Black woman of the American College of Surgeons. Seventeen years later, Dickens founded a teen clinic at University of Pennsylvania for school-age mothers. In her career, she regularly made it a priority to improve patient care in her specialty and empower female patients to speak up for their health.

James Robert Gladden (1911-1969)

Born in North Carolina, James Robert Gladden graduated with his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1943, he joined the orthopedic training program at Freedmen’s Hospital of Howard University. The program at Howard was the only approved training available to Black surgeons at the time. Gladden became the first Black board-certified orthopedic surgeon as well as the first Black member elected to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013)

Daughter of Louis T. Wright, who created the intradermal injection vaccination technique, Jane Cooke Wright pursued a medical career specializing in cancer research. In 1945, she graduated from New York Medical College, later completing her residency at Harlem Hospital in New York City. She eventually joined her father at Harlem’s Cancer Research Foundation. The father-daughter duo completed extensive research on chemotherapy treatment that resulted in remissions in patients with leukemia and lymphoma.

After her father’s death, Wright headed the Cancer Research Foundation and developed a technique that allowed physicians to test the effectiveness of drugs on cancer cells using patient tissue instead of lab mice. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Wright as the president of the Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke. Wright became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society in 1971. Her research turned chemotherapy into a feasible option for patients with cancer.

Marilyn Hughes Gaston (1939)

While interning at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964, Marilyn Hughes Gaston encountered her first sickle cell disease case. She became passionate about sickle cell disease and devoted her career to it, becoming a leading researcher. In 1986, she published a groundbreaking study on sickle cell screening for, and her research led to a nationwide screening program. Her achievements led her to become the first Black woman director of the Health and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care. Throughout her career, Gaston has earned every Public Health Service award currently offered, among other prestigious awards for medical achievements.

Patricia Era Bath (1942-2019)

In 1973, Patricia Era Bath became the first Black American to graduate from an ophthalmology residency at New York University’s School of Medicine. Shortly after, she became the school’s first woman hired to the department of ophthalmology. Bath later cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness and created the Laserphaco Probe. This invention earned her the recognition of first Black woman to receive a medical instrument patent.

In her lifetime, she created a new discipline in her field, known as “community ophthalmology.” Bath traveled widely and her “personal best moment” was recorded as occurring during an humanitarian mission in North Africa. “The ability to restore sight is the ultimate reward,” she allegedly said after restoring sight to a woman who had been blind for 30 years by performing a keratoprosthesis.

 

These stewards of medical innovation regularly faced obstacles in securing opportunities for formal training. Nevertheless, they persisted and contributed to medicine historic findings that went on to affect patient care today.

“[Black History Month] is about the lived, shared experience of all African Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America,” said President Barack Obama in a Feb. 2016 speech. “It’s about taking an unvarnished look at the past so we can create a better future. It’s a reminder of where we as a country have been so that we know where we need to go.”

References:

11 African American Doctors Who Became Medical Pioneers. American University of Antigua. https://www.auamed.org/blog/african-american-doctors/. Published June 30, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Changing the Face of Medicine | Helen Octavia Dickens. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_82.html. Published June 3, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Changing the Face of Medicine | Jane Cooke Wright. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_336.html/. Published June 3, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Changing the Face of Medicine | Marilyn Hughes Gaston. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_124.html. Published June 3, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Changing the Face of Medicine | Patricia E. Bath. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_26.html. Published June 3, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Changing the Face of Medicine | Rebecca Lee Crumpler. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_73.html. Published June 3, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Daniel Hale Williams and the First Successful Heart Surgery. Columbia University Department of Surgery. https://columbiasurgery.org/news/daniel-hale-williams-and-first-successful-heart-surgery. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Haskins J. Celebrating 10 African-American medical pioneers. AAMC. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/celebrating-10-african-american-medical-pioneers. Published February 25, 2019. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Helen Octavia Dickens, MD, FACS (1909–2001). American College of Surgeons. https://www.facs.org/About-ACS/Archives/pasthighlights/dickens. Accessed February 9, 2021.

History.com Editors. Black History Month. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month. Published January 14, 2010. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Mohammed H. Alzheimer’s and Dementia. 2020;doi:10.1002/alz.12183.

Moores C. Black History Month: African American Pioneers in Medicine. Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic. https://www.bifmc.org/black-history-month-african-american-pioneers-medicine/. Published February 4, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Munson E. Journal of Clinical Microbiology. 2020;doi:10.1128/JCM.01933-20.

Murphy L. About Dr. Gladden. The J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society. https://www.gladdensociety.org/about-dr-gladden. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Obama B. Remarks by the President at Black History Month Reception. National Archives and Records Administration. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/18/remarks-president-black-history-month-reception. Published February 18, 2016. Accessed February 17, 2021.

Oduro AA. Topic: Dr. Louis T. Wright The History of African Americans in the Medical Professions. CHAAMP Resources. https://chaamp.virginia.edu/node/3849. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Spring KA. Mary Eliza Mahoney. National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mahoney. Published 2017. Accessed February 9, 2021.

Who Was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams? | Jackson Heart Study Graduate Training and Education Center. https://www.jsums.edu/gtec/dr-daniel-hale-williams/. Accessed February 9, 2021.

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