Black History Month: 10 Black American Medical Pioneers
February is Black History Month and there have been many significant contributions to the healthcare system made by African Americans for many years that have helped bring us to the modern healthcare we know today. Let us look at just a few of them.
1. Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
First Black professional nurse in the United States, 1879.
In Boston, Mahoney’s birthplace, black children were not allowed to attend schools with Whites until 1855, and even in New England, domestic service was the only way for a black woman to make a living.
Mahoney had shown interest in a nursing career when she was 18 years old. She served as a “nurse” for some prominent white families before taking formal nurse training.
On March 23, 1878, she was named as the “first colored girl admitted” (Medical and Nursing Record Book, 1878) to the nurse training program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children; she graduated 16 months later at the age of 34.
2. Daniel Hale Williams (January 18, 1858 – August 4, 1931)
Dr. Williams was an African American physician who performed the first prototype open-heart surgery. He served as a surgeon at Provident (1892–93, 1898–1912) and surgeon in chief of Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, D.C. (1894–98), where he established another school for African American nurses.
Dr. Williams performed his first heart surgery at Provident Hospital on July, 1893. During that time, the medical society disapproved surgical treatment of heart wounds. He opened the patient’s thoracic cavity without aid of blood transfusions or modern anesthetics and antibiotics. During the surgery he examined the heart, sutured a wound of the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart), and closed the chest.
The patient lived at least 20 years following the surgery.
3. Solomon Carter Fuller (1872–1953)
Solomon Carter Fuller grew up with a strong interest in medicine as his grandparents were medical missionaries in Liberia. When he earned his medical degree in 1897 from Boston University, he was named as the first African American psychiatrist.
In 1904, he began pioneering work with the psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in Germany, studying the traits of dementia. Dr. Fuller was the first to translate much of Alzheimer’s work into English, including research regarding Auguste Deter— the patient with the first reported case of Alzheimer’s disease.
When he returned to the United States, Fuller continued research on Alzheimer’s disease, as well as schizophrenia, depression, and other mental illness. In 1912, he published the first comprehensive review of Alzheimer’s cases.
4. Charles Drew (3 June 1904 – 1 April 1950)
Dr. Drew was an American physician, surgeon and medical researcher known as the inventor of the blood bank.
Known as the “father of blood banking,” Charles Richard Drew, MD, has pioneered blood preservation methods that have contributed to thousands of life-saving blood donations. Drew’s doctoral research examined best practices for banking and transfusions, and his findings helped him create the first large-scale blood banks. Drew managed the Blood for Britain initiative, which sent much-needed plasma to England during the Second World War. Drew also led the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and set up mobile blood donation stations that are now known as bloodmobiles. But Drew’s job wasn’t without a challenge. He opposed the strategy of the American Red Cross to segregate blood by race and eventually resigned from the organization.
Despite his reputation for preserving blood, Drew’s true passion was surgery. He was appointed chairman of the department of surgery and chief of surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital (now known as Howard University Hospital) in Washington, D.C. During his tenure there, he worked hard to inspire young African-Americans to seek careers in the discipline.
5. Leonidas Harris Berry, MD (1902 — 1995)
Leonidas Harris Berry, MD was a renowned gastroenterologist. However, Dr. Berry still encountered discrimination at the workplace. Dr. Berry was the first black doctor at the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, in 1946, but he had to struggle there for years. “I spent many years of crushing disappointment at the threshold of opportunity,” he wrote to the hospital’s board of directors in his final appeal, “to keep my lamps trimmed and bright for a bride that never came.”
He was eventually promoted to the attending staff in 1963 and remained a senior attending physician for the rest of his medical career.
In the 1950s, Berry chaired the Chicago Commission, which sought to make hospitals more inclusive for black doctors and to expand services in underserved areas of the city. But his commitment to equality was well beyond the clinical setting— he actively participated in a civil rights organization, United Front, offering protection, monetary support and other assistance to black Cairo, Illinois, victims of racist attacks.
In 1970, he helped organize Flying Black Medics, a group of practitioners who had traveled from Chicago to Cairo to offer medical treatment and health education to members of the remote population.
6. Herbert W. Nickens, MD (1947 — 1999)
Herbert W. Nickens, MD was the first director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1986. He established the foundation aimed to promote better health among racial and ethnic minority communities across the country.
When he left the HHS, Nickens moved to the AAMC, where he was the founding vice president of the AAMC Division of Community and Minority Programs, now known as Diversity Policy and Programs. He led Project 3000 by 2000, which AAMC initiated in 1991 with the goal of enrolling 3,000 students from under-represented minority groups in U.S. medical schools annually by the year 2000.
The AAMC continues to recognize Nickens’ legacy with three namesake awards, honoring outstanding medical students, junior faculty, and individuals who have made significant contributions toward social justice in academic medicine and health care equity.
7. Charles DeWitt Watts (1917-2004)
Dr. Watts was the first African American to be certified by a surgical specialty board in North Carolina. He spent more than 50 years advocating for civil and human rights and for the quality of medical care for all residents of Durham, especially the poor and underserved. He broke racial barriers when he pushed for certification of black medical students.
He founded Lincoln Community Health Center, a free standing clinic, which served people regardless of their ability to pay. He also joined the staff of Lincoln Hospital as Chief of Surgery in 1950. Lincoln was one of the few American hospitals at the time that granted surgical privileges to African-American physicians.
Dr. Watts completed his surgical training at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, DC under the tutelage of Dr. Charles Drew. He worked to prepare Lincoln’s interns and residents for board certification and convinced Duke University Medical School to oversee Lincoln’s training program so that students could get board certified. He fought along with other community leaders for the creation of one integrated public health care facility, Durham Regional Hospital, built in Durham in 1967. This led to the closing of both Watts and Lincoln hospitals.
He served as Adjunct Clinical Professor of Surgery at Duke and Director of Student Health at North Carolina Central University.
For 28 years, he served as Vice President and Medical Director for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., the largest African-American managed insurer in the country.
He was a member of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, a fellow in the American College of Surgeons, and an active participant in the National Medical Association.
8. Jane Cooke Wright (1919–2013)
Dr. Wright grew up with a keen interest in healthcare as the daughter of one of Harvard Medical School’s first African American graduates, Dr. Louis Wright— the first Black doctor to serve in a municipal hospital in New York City, and the first African American police surgeon.
After graduating in medicine, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright worked alongside her father at the Cancer Research Foundation in Harlem— a foundation established by her father in 1948. Together, they researched chemotherapy drugs that led to remission in patients with leukemia and lymphoma.
When her father died of tuberculosis in 1952, Wright headed the Cancer Research Foundation. She developed an innovative technique to test the effect of drugs on cancer cells through the use of patient tissue rather than laboratory mice. She worked as Director of Cancer Chemotherapy at the New York University Medical Center and as Associate Dean at New York Medical College.
In 1971, the New York Cancer Society elected Wright as its first woman president. Her research helped transform chemotherapy from a last resort to a viable treatment for cancer.
9. Ben Carson (b. 1951)
Ben Carson is a world-famous pioneering brain surgeon. He ran for the US presidency in 2016, he served as the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump (2017–2021).
Carson graduated high school with a scholarship to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. At the age of 33, Dr. Carson was appointed as a director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.
In 1987, at 35, he received global acclaim when he separated the Binder conjoined twins in Germany. It was the first successful operation of its kind. In 1997, he again successfully separated twins who were joined at the head.
When he retired from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine at age 62, Carson became a professor of neurology, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics.
During his medical career, Carson developed groundbreaking techniques to treat brain-stem tumors and revitalizing methods for controlling seizures.
10. Mae Jemison (b. 1956)
Dr. Mae Jemison is best known for being the first Black woman astronaut to go into space in 1992. Moreover, she is also a qualified physician who has devoted his life to improving environmental health.
Jemison entered the Peace Corps in 1983 and served as a medical officer in Africa for two years. Her service has taught her about healthcare in developing countries. Later, as an astronaut, she studied about satellite communications. She combined those two branches of knowledge to form the Jemison Group, which develops telecommunications systems to improve healthcare delivery in developing countries.
Jemison says she got her inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. in focusing on what she sees as unacceptable disparities in the quality of healthcare in the United States and third-world nations. “We talk about taking proper care of people, but we don’t do it,” she said. “We lack the commitment. Martin Luther King was about doing things. He didn’t just have a dream, he got things done.”
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