Medicine wouldn’t be where it is today without the contributions of these amazing African-American men and women.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
The first African American Woman to Receive a Medical Degree
Back in the 1800s, it was rare for women to pursue medicine, let alone actually get a medical degree. Even rarer was it to be an African American woman in medicine. Despite this, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American woman medical doctor in 1864, graduating from New England Medical College which is known today as Boston University School of Medicine. She used her knowledge to care for freed slaves who had very limited or no access to medical care.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders
The first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology, the first African American to head the US Public Health Service, and the fifteenth Surgeon General of the United States
While completing her medical residency at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Joycelyn Elders’ skills and capability ultimately landed her the position of chief resident, in which she presided over a group of all-white, all-male residents. On this experience, she said, “Once I had a professor say to me, ‘You know you have as much education as a lot of white people.’ I answered, ‘Doctor, I have more education than most white people.’”
A fierce public health advocate, Dr. Elders would publish over 100 papers on a variety of topics. Her knowledge and passion for public health led President Bill Clinton to appoint her as the 15th Surgeon General of the United States. However, her campaigns for increased sex education, drug education, and contraception distribution in schools sparked controversy amongst conservative and religious groups, causing her to leave office after 15 months.
Dr. Mae C. Jemison
First African American Woman in Space (also a Medical Doctor)
After graduating with a doctorate in medicine from Cornell University in 1981, Dr. Mae C. Jemison served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. While in the Peace Corps, Dr. Jemison spent time working on research projects such as the Hepatitis B vaccine, schistosomiasis, and rabies with the National Institute of Health and the CDC.
Once back in the United States, Dr. Mae Jenison began work as a general practitioner for CIGNA Health Plans while simultaneously attending graduate school for engineering.
A lover of learning, Dr. Jemison jumped at the opportunity to participate in NASA’s astronaut program in June of 1987 when she became the first woman to be admitted. In 1992, she was sent on her first space mission and became the first African American woman to travel in space. She spent 8 days researching bone cells whilst the ship orbited Earth 127 times!
Nurse Mary E. Mahoney
First African American Woman to Graduate Professional Nursing School
Born in 1845 to formerly enslaved parents, Mary E. Mahoney knew from her early teens that she wanted to become a nurse, even though no African American woman had ever been accepted into nursing programs in the US. With the hopes of working towards her goal, she began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was a one-of-a-kind hospital with an all-women physician staff. Over a period of 15 years, Mary worked in several roles, including janitor, cook, washer, and nurse’s aid. At age 33, Mary was accepted into the hospital’s nursing program and became 1 of only 4 students out of the class of 42 who went onto graduate. Nurse Mary also became the first African American in the US to earn a professional nursing license.
After over 40 years working as a nurse, Mary finally retired from the profession but went on to champion women’s rights and was amongst the first women who registered to vote in 1920.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams
The first African American Cardiologist AND the first surgeon to successfully perform open-heart surgery
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams graduated with an M.D. degree in 1883 from Chicago Medical College. During his time in Chicago, Dr. Hale practiced medicine amongst only 4 black physicians in the city. Discrimination and racism made receiving care and gaining employment in Chicago hospitals nearly impossible for African Americans, so Dr. Hale founded his own. The Provident Hospital and Training School provided much needed healthcare to a largely neglected black community and became the first hospital in the US that hired African Americans for its nursing and intern program. It also became the first hospital in the US to have an interracial staff.
With none of the modern tools we have today, Dr. Williams became the first cardiologist in the world to successfully perform open-heart surgery on a human in 1893. His patient was discharged 51 days after his surgery.
Later in 1895, Dr. Williams co-founded the National Medical Association, which to this day continues to serve as a professional organization for African Americans in medicine when, at the time, the American Medical Association would only accept white members.
Dr. William Augustus Hinton
Creator of the Hinton Test and First African American Professor at Harvard University
Dr. William A. Hinton graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1912. Although he wanted to become a surgeon, discrimination prevented him from doing so. He would go on to pursue a career in medical research. After 3 years of performing autopsies on individuals suspected of having syphilis, Dr. Hinton began work as a researcher at the Wassermann Laboratory. There, he developed what is now known as the Hinton test, a flocculation method for detecting syphilis.
Dr. William A. Hinton later became the first African American professor at Harvard University.
Dr. James McCune Smith
First African American to earn a medical degree and operate a pharmacy in the US
Known to be an exceptional student, Dr. James McCune Smith left the US to pursue his medical degree at Glasgow University in Scotland since African Americans weren’t permitted to attend college in the US at the time. Dr. Smith later returned to the US and worked closely with Frederick Douglass to create the National Council of Colored People. In 1837, Smith became the first black physician to publish articles in US medical journals, through which he debunked racial theories and refuted racial biases.
Dr. Smith later opened the first African-American-owned and operated pharmacy in the US, from which he treated both black and white patients. He went on to open a second pharmacy and practiced medicine for a total of 25 years.
Dr. Louis Wade Sullivan
Founding Dean of Morehouse School of Medicine & Secretary of US Dept of Health and Human Services
Dr. Louis Wade Sullivan received his M.D. degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1958, the only black student in his class. In 1966, he was hired as co-director of hematology at Boston University Medical Center and, after a year, founded the Boston University Hematology Service.
In 1975, the Morehouse School of Medicine, the first of two historically black medical schools created in the twentieth century, was founded and Dr. Sullivan became its first dean. In 1988, President George H.W. Bush appointed Sullivan to serve as the US Secretary of Health and Human Services. Despite some initial resistance, Sullivan gained respect from conservatives and liberals alike for his stances on preventative health care, minority health issues, and health care reform. He returned to Morehouse School of Medicine as president in 1993.
Dr. Sullivan has received over 60 honorary awards, including the Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Award for Humanitarian Contributions to the Health of Humankind from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in 2008.