Numerous racial disparities exist in health care, both in workforce diversity and in providing equal and accessible care to all. While we continue working to move in the right direction, it’s helpful to look back and get inspired by the contributions of Black medical leaders across history. Thirteen are especially noteworthy.
The process involved taking pus from an infected smallpox blister and transferring it into an open wound of an uninfected person to inoculate people from the disease. While not without risk, the treatment caused a milder, less fatal case of smallpox that produced immunity.
Physicians used variolation on soldiers during the Revolutionary War, and history even records that John Adams underwent the procedure during a Boston epidemic.
Dr. Louis T. Wright, an African American surgeon, furthered the process in 1917 with a new technique for smallpox vaccination.
Advanced Diphtheria and Yellow Fever Treatments
James Durham, an enslaved person who bought his freedom, wrote an impressive diphtheria paper showing successful treatment. So remarkable was the paper, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a noted physician, read it before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Durham returned to his practice in New Orleans to treat patients suffering from Yellow Fever, an epidemic that had killed thousands. He experienced great success, saving more victims than any other physician at the time.
Book of Medical Discourses
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, published the Book of Medical Discourses in 1883.
The book contained medical advice for women and children and was written based on her belief that many tragic outcomes were preventable, particularly when it came to infant mortality.
Successful Heart Surgery
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Chicago in 1891, the country’s first Black-owned and multiracial hospital. Two years later, Williams saved the life of a man who had been stabbed in the chest by performing one of the world’s first successful heart surgeries.
Dr. Louis T. Wright, previously mentioned for advancing the smallpox vaccination treatment, was the first doctor to explore using the tetracycline antibiotic in patients.
His findings on the effects of aureomycin administered to patients who had been exposed to viruses made a significant impact on the treatment of several diseases.
Alzheimer’s & Neurodegenerative Disease Research Advancements
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, America’s first black psychiatrist, made significant research advancements in Alzheimer’s, manic depression, and schizophrenia. Fuller was one of five medical students chosen by Alois Alzheimer to serve as his assistant.
In 1911, Fuller identified one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and published his findings. He also translated much of Alzheimer’s work into English. He is widely regarded as a pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease research.
Groundbreaking Research on Egg Fertilization and Cell Division
Dr. Ernest E. Just, biologist and embryologist, was known for his simply elegant experiments regarding the importance of ectoplasm in the fertilization and development of eggs.
He was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his groundbreaking work on egg fertilization and cell division.
Syphilis Test and Treatment
Dr. William Augustus Hinton was a bacteriologist, pathologist, and educator. He created a test to diagnose syphilis, which the United States Public Health Service used because of its accuracy.
In 1936, he authored Syphilis and Its Treatment, the first medical textbook ever published by an African American.
Charles R. Drew, ScD, known as the “Father of Blood Banking,” discovered that plasma could replace whole blood transfusions. He pioneered blood plasma storage methods and organized the first large-scale blood bank during World War II.
He became the first Black examiner for the American Board of Surgery and the chief surgeon at Washington D.C.’s Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital).
Dr. Jane Wright elevated chemotherapy from a last-ditch treatment effort to a feasible therapy option. She also devised a way to deliver high doses of anticancer drugs to hard-to-reach tumors.
Sickle Cell Research
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston‘s research showed the effectiveness of penicillin in preventing sepsis. She is regarded as a leading sickle cell disease researcher and was named deputy branch chief of the National Institutes of Health’s Sickle Cell Disease Branch.
The Laserphaco Probe is a technique and device used during cataract surgery. It was developed by Dr. Patricia Era Bath, the first black female physician to receive a patent for a medical device. She founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976, based on the belief that eyesight is a fundamental human right.
Emmett Chappelle, a biochemist, found that a precise chemical combination caused living things to create and emit light. Chappelle’s breakthroughs in harnessing the force of bioluminescence aided vital biological and chemical discoveries. His research also improved the accuracy of bacteria detection in water.
Chappelle continued to foster technology growth throughout his career, mentoring many minority high school and college students.
From vaccines to blood banking to medical device development and more, African Americans have a rich history of health care innovation. During Black History Month this year, take some time to learn about these and the many other outstanding individuals who devoted their lives and careers to advancing health care in America.