Black History Month

10 Black Pioneers in Medicine

Written by Anthony Emecheta

February is designated Black History Month, a time of reflection on the incredible contributions of the Black community to American and global history. For Elevate Black Health, it is an opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Black people in the healthcare field. Sadly, some of them were never celebrated during their lifetime.

The theme for this year’s celebration is “African Americans and the Arts”. The theme aims to bring to the fore how Black people have illuminated the world with different art forms. In a way, the intricate contributions of Black people to the field of medicine, like the separation of conjoined twins, require the mastery of the hands comparable to the brushstrokes of a skilled painter.

In honor of Black History Month, I have compiled a list of some of the iconic Black People who changed the face of medicine—and by extension played important roles in the survival and evolution of humanity.

1. Charles Drew (1904 – 1950)

How to safely store blood plasma for as long as possible was one of the challenges that faced the medical field. Drew changed the narrative by discovering new ways of storing blood plasma for transfusion. During World War II, Drew organized the first large-scale blood bank. When the war ended, he designed a blood storage program in collaboration with the American Red Cross.

His blood bank supplied blood to the United States Navy and Army who initially rejected the blood of Black people. However, they later accepted it on the condition that it would be stored separately from blood of Whites. Drew objected the segregation and eventually resigned. He later became a chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital, D.C. (present-day Howard University Hospital). Drew was American Board of Surgery’s first Black examiner.

2. Daniel Hale Williams (1856 – 1931)

Williams was charmed by the work of a local physician, Henry W. Palmer, and decided to be his apprentice. After working and studying for 2 years, he decided to pursue an education in medicine and enrolled with Chicago Medical College. He eventually founded Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first medical facility in the United States with interracial staff.

Williams was one of the first people to successfully perform open-heart surgery. He was appointed the chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital in 1894 and the next year he founded the National Medical Association for Black medical practitioners.

3. Henrietta Lacks (1920 – 1951)

Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital (one of the few hospitals that treated poor African Americans) in 1951 complaining of vaginal bleeding. It was later discovered that she had a malignant tumor on her cervix. She was placed on radium treatments, the best medical solution at that time. One remarkable thing about Lacks cancer cells is that, unlike others, they doubled every 20 to 24 hours where other cells would die.

Today, her cell line—nicknamed HeLa—is used to study the effects of toxins, viruses, hormones, and drugs, on the growth of cancer cells without the need for human volunteers. They played important roles in the discovery of COVID-19 and polio vaccines. Mrs. Lacks died in 1951 at the age of 31 but her cells continue to live and advance medical studies.

4. James McCune Smith (1813 – 1865)

James was born into slavery. He regained his freedom in 1827, thanks to New York’s Emancipation Act. By age 15, he completed his primary education but was unable to secure admission into any U.S. institution because of his skin color. Consequently, he enrolled in the University of Glasgow and became the first African American to earn a medical degree.

James went ahead to open the first Black-owned pharmacy in America. He also served as the medical director for the Colored Orphan Asylum for two decades. Equipped with medical and statistical analysis training, Smith challenged misconceptions about race, intelligence, and physiology.

5. Jane Cooke Wright (1919 – 2013)

Jane was the daughter of Dr. Louis Wright, one of the first Black people to graduate from Harvard Medical School. After earning her degree, Jane worked with her father at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center which her father established in 1948. Together, the Wrights advanced research into chemotherapy drugs that led to remissions in lymphoma and leukemia patients.

After the death of her father in 1952, Jane was appointed the head of the Cancer Research Center at 33 years. She discovered innovative techniques to test the efficacy of drugs on cancerous cells using patient tissue instead of laboratory mice. She was elected the first female president of the New York Cancer Society in 1971.

6. Marilyn Hughes Gaston (Born 1939)

Gaston experienced poverty and prejudice while growing up and eventually dedicated her medical career to caring for minorities and the poor. She was vocal in the advocacy of health equity across the nation. She was the only Black woman and one of the six women who attended the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Gaston.

Her publication in 1986 inspired the creation of a national sickle cell disease screening program for newborns and validated the effectiveness of penicillin use for the prevention of sepsis in babies with the disease. Gaston was the first Black female director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the United States Health Resources and Service Administration.

7. Onyema Ogbuagu (Born 1978)

Ogbuagu and his twin brother were born in the United States but returned to Nigeria when they were five. He completed his primary and secondary education in Nigeria and bagged his medical degree from the University of Calabar. Eventually, he returned to the United States and interned at the Elmhurst campus of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In 2012, he completed an infectious disease fellowship at Yale School of Medicine and was elevated to Assistant Professor in the same year.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ogbuagu helped Pfizer to develop the first effective vaccine against the virus. More recently, Ogbuagu discovered that there are co-infections of COVID, flu, or RSV, with all three now circulating at the same time. The Associate Professor of Medicine and Infectious Disease at Yale School of Medicine is working on a single vaccine to fight against COVID and flu which he believes would be ready this year. His work saved millions from dying from the pandemic.

8. Otis Boykin (1920 – 1982)

Boykin’s mother who was a maid died of heart failure when he was a year old. Eventually, he attended Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas and was the valedictorian. From there he enrolled at Fisk University on scholarship. During his time there, he worked as a laboratory assistant at a nearby aerospace laboratory.

Boykin did most of his research on pacemaker—a medical device implant that generates electrical pulses to maintain a steady heartbeat and prevent cardiac arrest—while working as a senior project engineer at the Chicago Telephone Supply Corporation (later called CTS Labs). He later created and patented different electronic control devices.

9. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 – 1895)

After moving to Massachusetts, Crumpler started working as a nurse, although she had no formal education. It is believed that she was likely influenced by her aunt who cared for sick neighbors in Pennsylvania. She was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860 and graduated four years later to become the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.

Crumpler is mostly remembered for her Book of Medical Discourses, one of the first medical publications by an African American. Through the Freedmen’s Bureau, she spent a good portion of her time caring for formerly enslaved people.

10. William Hinton (1883 – 1959)

Williams Hinton earned a bachelor’s degree in science at Harvard in 1905. Seven years later, Hinton bagged a medical degree with honors from Harvard Medical School. However, due to racial prejudice, Hinton was unable to pursue a career in surgery. He volunteered as an assistant in the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and started performing autopsies on suspected syphilis patients.

Hinton became so good at the disease and eventually developed a new blood test for syphilis diagnosis. His novel blood test was later adopted by the U.S. Public Health Service. After years of teaching immunology and bacteriology, he became the first African American to be promoted as a professor at Harvard.

This is not an exhaustive list as more Black people have contributed and continue to contribute to the furtherance of medical research and innovations. However, I hope that by reading about the exploits of the Black people—in the face of adversity—on this list, you will be inspired to achieve something that defies your current circumstances.

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About the author

Anthony Emecheta

Anthony Emecheta holds a master’s degree in microbiology. He is a passionate educator and particularly an advocate of racial equality. He strongly believes the world will be a better place if we all see ourselves as humans first before anything else.

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