Honoring Black American medical pioneers

[6 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Providence honors Black History Month, in part, by celebrating the accomplishments of our past pioneers — the trailblazers whose significant contributions to the field of medicine made it what it is today.

  • We highlight several Black American medical pioneers, starting with Onesimus, a slave in the early 1700s who introduced the concept of inoculation to the American colonies and helped end the Boston smallpox epidemic in the 1720s.

  • To learn more about Black American medical heroes, tune in to our Culture of Health podcast, which includes episodes on past pioneers and contemporary heroes.

Honoring Black American medical pioneers

At Providence, we believe an important part of Black History Month is recognizing and celebrating Black Americans who have made significant contributions to the field of medicine.

That’s why we’re highlighting some of the historical heroes whose accomplishments are even more impressive when you consider the obstacles, including racism and segregation, they had to overcome to achieve them.

Laying the groundwork

One of the early trailblazers was Onesimus, a slave in the Boston household of Puritan minister Cotton Mather in the early 1700s. When smallpox broke out in Boston in 1721, a doctor named Zabdiel Boylston was credited with introducing smallpox inoculation to the American colonies by exposing healthy people to a small amount of the virus. But Boylston got the idea from Mather, who was told about the concept by Onesimus, who was most likely inoculated against smallpox as a child growing up in western Africa.

“People in Boston didn’t want to believe a quote-unquote heathen was responsible for their salvation, and regular history books don’t contain his name,” says Richard Allen Williams, M.D., FACC, FAHA, FACP, clinical professor of Medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine and founder of the Association of Black Cardiologists.

Historically, it was extremely difficult for Black Americans to gain admission to medical schools or receive the same quality of education and training as white students. Although the first medical school in the United States to admit Black students was the University of Michigan, which enrolled its first Black student in 1870, it wasn’t until the late 1940s and 1950s that medical schools began to admit Black students more frequently as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

For this reason, another early Black American medical pioneer was William Montague Cobb, M.D., who was renowned in the field of anatomy. Dr. Cobb was appointed Howard University’s first Distinguished University Professor in 1970 and served as both president of the National Medical Association and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also had a major impact on the passing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. 

“He had a very big influence on the medical and social scene we see today,” Dr. Williams says. “It’s amazing to consider not only what these past figures were able to accomplish in the field of medicine despite the obstacles they faced, but also the impact those accomplishments have had on future generations.”

Below we honor some of the other great Black pioneers in modern medicine.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

 

Dr. Crumpler was the first Black woman to become a doctor in the United States, graduating in 1863 from the New England Female Medical College — what would later become the Boston University School of Medicine.

“As a Black person and as a woman, she had two strikes against her,” says Global Vice President and Chief Health Equity and Clinical Innovation Officer at Providence Nwando Anyaoku, M.D., MPH, MBA. “At that time, women were thought of as caregivers, but there wasn’t an avenue for them to provide care formally. She established that precedent.”

In 1883, Dr. Crumpler published a book called “Book of Medical Discourses” that gave medical advice to women and children. It was the first medical text ever written by a Black woman.

Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell

Dr. Mossell was the son of former slaves who moved to what is today Ontario, Canada, via the Underground Railroad. He earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1882, becoming the first African American to graduate from the school.

Dr. Mossell specialized in gynecology and obstetrics, and dedicated much of his life to providing health care to underserved communities. In 1888, he co-founded the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, the first African American-owned and -operated hospital in Philadelphia.



Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

Dr. Williams was an African American heart surgeon in Chicago in the late 1800s. In 1891, he founded the first Black-owned and -operated hospital in the city, called Provident, which also provided a training residency for doctors and a school for nurses.

In 1893, Dr. Williams became the first African American on record to successfully perform pericardium surgery to repair a wound. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association for Black doctors and, in 1913, he became a charter member and the only African American doctor in the American College of Surgeons.

“That is a very important accomplishment from which we’re still benefiting,” Dr. Williams says. “At the time, he couldn’t become a member of the American Medical Association because of his race.”

Dr. Myra Adele Logan

Dr. Logan was born in 1908 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Despite facing both racial and gender discrimination, she pursued a career in surgery, and was the first woman to graduate from the Boston University School of Medicine in 1933.

In 1943, Dr. Logan became the first African American woman to perform open heart surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She played a critical role in developing techniques for treating cyanotic heart disease and helped make significant advancements in cardiac surgery.

“She inspired future generations of Black women to consider surgery as a career,” Dr. Anyaoku says. “She was a trailblazer in the field for Black women who came after her.”

Dr. Vivien Thomas

Dr. Thomas always had a deep interest in medicine but, due to financial constraints, couldn’t access higher education. In the 1940s, however, while working as a janitor at Johns Hopkins University, a doctor recognized his intelligence and hired him as a lab assistant. Together, the two developed a surgical technique to treat what was known as “blue baby syndrome,” a condition causing a lack of oxygen in the blood.

Although Dr. Thomas wasn’t initially credited for his work, he taught himself surgical techniques and performed intricate procedures, contributing immensely to successful surgeries performed at Johns Hopkins. Years later, he became an instructor of surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Drew became the first African American to earn a medical degree from Columbia University. During World War II, he led the “Blood for Britain” project, which organized the collection and storage of blood plasma for transfusions, saving hundreds of lives.

“He revolutionized the blood transfusion process and, similarly, was vilified for it,” Dr. Anyaoku says. “He was actually banned from certain blood banks due to his race.”

Dr. Drew’s advocacy against racial segregation in blood donation led to policy changes within the American Red Cross. “He really helped put things in place that made it safe and welcoming for African Americans to donate blood,” Dr. Anyaoku says. “That’s important because you need to have a diverse pool of donations to help a diverse population.”

Dr. Frederick D. Patterson

By the age of 31, Dr. Patterson had earned three degrees: a doctorate in veterinary science, a doctorate in philosophy and a master’s in science. In 1944, he founded two institutions: the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tuskegee University and the United Negro College Fund.

Dr. Patterson was also influential in higher education and the development of Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965. In 1986, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Ronald Reagan.



Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks holds a significant place in history because of her cells, which, without her or her family knowing it, became one of the most important tools in medicine.

Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. During her treatment, cells from her tumor were removed without her knowledge or consent — a common practice at the time — and cultured to create the first immortal human cell line, now known as HeLa cells. The cells, which multiplied rapidly, proved groundbreaking for medical research. They contributed to numerous scientific breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, advancements in cancer research and scientists’ understanding of viruses and the effects of radiation and toxins on the human body.

Lacks passed away in October of 1951, at age 31, but her family didn’t learn that her cells were being used in scientific research until the 1970s. Her story sparked many discussions around informed consent in medicine, and highlights the importance of ethical considerations in medical research.

Dr. Leonidas Harris Berry

Dr. Berry received his medical degree from RUSH Medical College in Chicago and went on to specialize in gastroenterology. In the early 1950s, he introduced the “Berry Plan,” a citywide movement to provide medical counseling clinics for young drug users. In 1965, he became the president of the National Medical Association and appointed a committee to integrate white doctors into the organization. As a result, in 1968, the American Medical Association agreed to end its racial exclusion practices. He also revived a joint committee across both associations to end racial discrimination in hospitals and medicine.

In addition, Dr. Berry helped found the Chicago Council for Biomedical Careers to help prepare Black young people for careers in medicine and the Flying Black Medics, which flew a team of nurses, pharmacists and social workers to Cairo, Illinois, during a race riot in 1970 to care for the city’s poor residents.

Listen to the Culture of Health podcast celebrating Black Americans who made significant contributions to health care and blazed a trail for others who came after them. 

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Related resources

Culture of Health podcast: Honoring Black American Medical Pioneers

Culture of Health podcast: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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