A Lasting Mark in Medicine- Honoring Black History Month

From Dr. Jean Blackwell Logan’s development of the Blackwell Methodology, an evidence-based technique used to measure and improve patient outcomes, to Columbia University School of Nursing professor Dr. Carolyn Spencer Browne, who paved the way for improved mental health services for Black Americans, innovative African American doctors and researchers have made long-lasting changes in the way we approach health care today.

Black History Month

Black History Month is an important way to recognize and celebrate these individuals and their contributions to society. We must continue to pay tribute to these pioneers, learn from their examples, and strive to make a difference in the lives of others.

Other noteworthy Black pioneers in health care include Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who was the first African American woman to become a doctor in 1864; oral surgeon Harriet Judson Williams, who was among the first Black women known to practice dentistry; civil rights leader Reva Gowens Martin, who sought to provide much-needed access to quality health care for African Americans living in poverty-stricken areas; and 1950 Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, whose social science influence helped bring attention to public health disparities. Through their work and dedication, these trailblazers demonstrated how every person could make a positive difference in the world.

Recognition in Plastic Surgery

In the field of plastic surgery, for example, Dr. Foad Nahai has been a leader in the research and practice of aesthetic surgery since the 1970s. His work has been instrumental in advancing facial reconstruction techniques, developing innovative approaches to correcting deformities, and creating new technologies to improve patient outcomes. 

Additionally, Dr. Michael Jones-Bey is a prominent plastic surgeon who specializes in breast reconstruction surgery, specializing in nipple-sparing mastectomies that have revolutionized the practice of reconstructive breast surgery. Both of these doctors have made remarkable strides in the field of plastic surgery and serve as an example of the impact that Black physicians have had on the profession.

Black Pioneers in Medicine

James McCune Smith, MD (1813–1865)

Born into slavery in 1813, James McCune Smith was granted freedom by the New York Emancipation Act of 1827 and finished his primary education with honors at the age of 15. Despite his accomplishments, U.S. educational institutions would not admit him due to his race, so he attended the abolitionist University of Glasgow and became the first African American to obtain a medical degree. Furthermore, he opened the first Black-owned pharmacy in America, acted as medical director for the Colored Orphan Asylum for 20 years and utilized his education in medicine and statistical analysis to challenge misconceptions related to race, physiology and intelligence. 

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831–1895)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who was originally from Delaware, was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who tended to her neighbors’ illnesses. In 1852, she moved to Massachusetts and worked as a nurse without any formal training. She was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860 and four years later graduated with a medical degree, becoming the first African American woman in the U.S. to achieve this feat. In 1883 Crumpler published a book titled “Book of Medical Discourses,” which was one of the first medical publications by an African American. Throughout her life, she treated former slaves through the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Daniel Hale Williams III, MD (1856–1931)

Daniel Hale Williams III was the son of a barber affiliated with the Equal Rights League, an African American civil rights organization active during Reconstruction. He went on to apprentice under an esteemed surgeon and later chose to study medicine. He established Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, becoming the first doctor in the country to hire an interracial staff. Moreover, Williams achieved several impressive accomplishments: He was one of the earliest individuals to carry out successful open-heart surgery; he was subsequently made chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital; and finally, he created the National Medical Association for Black medical practitioners in 1895.

William A. Hinton, MD (1883–1959)

In 1905, William A. Hinton earned a bachelor’s degree in science from Harvard and in 1912, he obtained a medical degree with honors from Harvard Medical School. However, due to racial prejudice, he was unable to pursue surgery at any Boston-area hospital. He volunteered as an assistant in the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and conducted autopsies on patients suspected of having syphilis. Hinton developed expertise on the disease and came up with a new blood test that was adopted by the U.S. Public Health Service.

Albert W. Dent (1904–1984)

Albert W. Dent began his healthcare career in 1932 as superintendent of Flint-Goodridge Hospital, a renowned hospital for Black Americans. In 1941 he was appointed president of Dillard University and created the first college nursing program to be accredited by the Louisiana Board of Nursing in the United States. He was also president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes, and had positions on boards including the American Council of Education, Ford Fund for the Advancement of Education and the National Merit Scholarship Program. 

Jane Cooke Wright (1919–2013)

In 1945, Jane Cooke Wright obtained her medical degree and subsequently teamed up with her father, who was a doctor too, at the Cancer Research Foundation in Harlem Hospital. Together they studied chemotherapy drugs that caused remissions in people suffering from leukemia and lymphoma. In 1952, Wright was only 33 when she was made the lead of the Cancer Research Foundation. Later, she created a program focusing on stroke, heart disease and cancer at New York Medical College and was included in President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer and Stroke. Additionally, Wright was the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society and helped start the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (b. 1939)

Marilyn Hughes Gaston overcame poverty and prejudice to dedicate her medical career to helping poor and minority families and fighting for health equity. When she attended the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, she was the only Black woman among six women in her class. In 1986, she published a study that prompted the creation of a national sickle cell disease screening program for newborns. Additionally, her study showed that penicillin could help prevent infections from sepsis in babies with the disease. In 1990, Gaston became the first Black female physician to become director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care at U.S. Health Resources Services Administration, as well as the second Black woman assistant surgeon general with the rank of rear admiral in U.S. Public Health Service.