Honoring today’s Black American health heroes


In this article:

  • Providence honors Black History Month, in part, by celebrating the accomplishments of today’s health care heroes — the trailblazers making significant contributions to the field and advancing the future of medicine.

  • We highlight several contemporary Black American medical giants — some leading today and some who will lead tomorrow.

  • 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 today’s Black American health heroes

As part of Black History Month, we’re celebrating Black Americans who are changing the face of health care.

In this article, we’re highlighting some of today’s leaders, as well as a few young people who are already making a difference in the medical field and deserve recognition for their contributions.

Today’s leaders

Emory Healthcare Chief Transformation Officer Amaka Eneanya, M.D., MPH, is one such innovator advancing the field of medicine today, says Global Vice President and Chief Health Equity and Clinical Innovation Officer at Providence Nwando Anyaoku, M.D., MPH, MBA. Trained as a nephrologist, Dr. Eneanya’s research on the use of race in eGFR equations led to changes in how patients with kidney disease are diagnosed and treated.

“Her work showed that the way we used to assess kidney function was actually harming Black patients,” Dr. Anyaoku says. “This is why shining a light on inequities is so important. It can be baked into the pie, and unless someone calls attention to it, nothing changes.”

Another of today’s giants is Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D., 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. Dr. Gaston became the first African American woman to direct a public health service bureau when she became director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. Until she retired in 2001, much of Dr. Gaston’s work was focused on improving health care services for poor and underserved families, especially in the area of sickle cell disease advocacy.

“She came up with the idea of using prophylactic (preventive) antibiotics to treat newborns with sickle cell anemia because, otherwise, many of them would develop pneumonia and die,” Dr. Williams says. “Her work led to hundreds of babies born with sickle cell anemia being saved.”

Patrice Harris, M.D., who served as president of the American Medical Association (AMA) from 2020-2021, is another “luminary in the medical space,” Dr. Williams says. During her tenure, and as a practicing psychiatrist, Dr. Harris worked to ensure the biggest medical association in the world was committed to establishing health equity in the United States.

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

Dr. Joycelyn Elders

Born to poor farming parents in 1933, Dr. Elders scrubbed floors to pay her undergraduate college tuition, but she overcame racism and segregation to become a pediatrician. Her work in pediatric endocrinology led her to advocate on behalf of adolescents, helping her patients avoid health risks associated with sexual behavior and control their fertility. Dr. Elders was named surgeon general of the United States in 1993.


Dr. Patricia Bath

Dr. Bath was an ophthalmologist and humanitarian. She became the first female member of the Jules Stein Eye Institute, the first woman to lead a post-graduate training program in ophthalmology, and the first woman elected to the honorary staff of the UCLA Medical Center. She was also the first African American to serve as a resident in ophthalmology at New York University, the first African American woman to serve on staff as a surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center, and the first African American woman to receive a patent for a medical purpose.

Dr. Bath, who passed away in 2019, held five patents in the United States.

Dr. Alexa Canady

Dr. Canady became the first Black woman to become a neurosurgeon in 1981. She was also the first African American and the first woman to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery. Dr. Canady’s research focused on congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, trauma and brain tumors. Her work and accomplishments have opened the door for countless surgeons of all races and genders.

Dr. David Satcher

Dr. Satcher became the 16th surgeon general of the United States in 1998 and served until 2002. He also served as the 10th assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services from 1998 until 2001, which made him only the second person in history to hold both positions simultaneously. In addition, Dr. Satcher served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and of the King-Drew Sickle Cell Research Center at the UCLA School of Medicine and Public Health.

Dr. Satcher also is the founding director and senior advisor of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, which aims to develop a diverse group of health leaders who will work to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate disparities in health.

“Dr. Satcher made such a tremendous impact on both medicine and public health in the United States,” Dr. Anyaoku says. “He stands as a giant for me in today’s world.”

Dr. Ted Love

Trained as a cardiologist, Dr. Love is chair of the board of directors at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and most recently served as president and CEO of Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT). While at GBT, Dr. Love grew the company from a startup into a global enterprise with an advanced pipeline of innovative therapies focused on sickle cell disease.

Throughout his career, Dr. Love has worked to address systemic racism and reduce racial health inequities.

“Everyone should know who Dr. Love is,” Dr. Williams says. “He’s a hero on the contemporary scene in large part because of his work in moving the needle to eliminate health care disparities, especially in the sickle cell space.”

Dr. Ala Stanford

Dr. Stanford is a pediatric surgeon in Philadelphia. During the pandemic, she noticed Black people were becoming infected with COVID-19 and dying at higher rates than any other demographic group. She launched the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium (BDCC) to improve testing access for Black people. Through her efforts, more than 10,000 received COVID-19 testing.

Tomorrow’s leaders

Dr. Emmanuella Asabor

Dr. Asabor is a joint M.D. and Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology at Yale University Schools of Medicine and Public Health whose research sits at the intersection of social medicine, epidemiology and health policy. She’s been recognized for her research and advocacy in the areas of COVID-19, police violence, asylum medicine and global health.

Dasia Taylor

At age 17, Dasia Taylor used beets to invent sutures that change colors — from bright red to dark purple — when a surgical wound becomes infected. She coated sutures with a conductive material that could sense the status of the wound through changes in electrical resistance, which could then be transferred to a smartphone or    other device.

Taylor hopes the color-changing sutures will help with the early detection of surgical site infections.

Heman Bekele

At age 14, Heman Bekele invented a soap that treats skin cancer. The soap, called Melanoma Treating Soap (MTS), delivers cancer-fighting drugs via lipid nanoparticles, which work to activate the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Bekele was inspired to create the soap when he learned the average price of skin cancer treatment around the globe is almost $40,000. His goal is to make treatment affordable for everyone who needs it. Bekele won the “America’s Top Young Scientist” award from 3M and Discovery Education for his invention.

Listen to the Culture of Health podcast celebrating Black Americans who are making significant contributions in health care today and blazing a trail for those who will come behind 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

Juneteenth: “America’s second Independence Day”

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