Black History Month: Celebrating the Medical Contributions of Africans and Black Americans

In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to take the time to recognize the achievements of 5 pioneering Black men and women who helped shaped and change the course of healthcare. From first-of-their kind medical devices to novel surgical procedures, these men and women are just a few of many that worked tirelessly to improve patient access and brought light to the many issues affecting the quality-of-life in marginalized communities.

Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931)

Daniel Hale Williams is regarded as the first African American cardiologist.

After apprenticing with a surgeon, Dr. Williams earned a medical degree and started working as a surgeon in Chicago in 1884. Due to segregation laws during that time, Black doctors were prohibited from working in most hospitals. This lead Dr. Williams to open America’s first Black-owned interracial hospital.

The hospital, called Provident, offered training to African American interns and eventually went on to establish America’s first school for Black nurses. On July 10, 1893, Dr. Williams performed the world’s first successful open heart surgery and was able to repair the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart) of a man who had been stabbed in a knife fight.

Dr. Williams later cofounded the National Medical Association, and became the first Black physician admitted to the American College of Surgeons.

Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013)

Jane Cooke Wright was the daughter of Dr. Louis Wright, one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard Medical School. After obtaining her medical degree, Dr. Wright worked with her father at the Cancer Research Foundation in Harlem, which he established in 1948. Together, they researched chemotherapy drugs that led to remissions in patients with leukemia and lymphoma.

After Dr. Louis Wright passed away in 1952, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright became the head of the Cancer Research Foundation at age 33. She created a novel technique to test the effect of drugs on cancer cells by using patient tissue rather than laboratory mice. She eventually became the director of cancer chemotherapy at New York University Medical Center, and was later an associate dean at New York Medical College.

The New York Cancer Society elected Dr. Wright as its first woman president in 1971, and her work in cancer research helped transform chemotherapy from a last resort to a viable treatment for cancer.

Ben Carson (b. 1951)

Ben Carson is one of the world’s most famous and pioneering surgeons.

Dr. Carson grew up in Detroit and graduated high school with a scholarship to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He eventually went on to become the youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery in the United States, and was appointed director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, in Baltimore.

At age 35, he received global acclaim when he separated the Binder conjoined twins in Germany, the first successful operation of its kind. He achieved this success again in 1997, and separated another set of twins who were joined at the head.

When he retired from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine at age 62, “Carson was a professor of neurology, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics.” Throughout his medical career, Dr. Carson developed novel and groundbreaking techniques to treat brain-stem tumors, and introduced effective methods for controlling seizures.

Mae Jemison (b.1956)

Dr. Mae Jemison was the first Black woman astronaut to go into space, in 1992. Alongside her achievements in space, she was also a trained physician.

Dr. Jemison joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and worked as a medical officer in Africa, for two years. During this time, she learned about healthcare in developing countries and this lead to a life dedication in improving global health. During her time as an astronaut, Dr. Jemison became very familiar with satellite telecommunications. She used this knowledge to build the Jemison Group, a technology firm which went on to develop telecommunications systems to improve healthcare delivery in developing countries. 

Patricia Bath (1942-2019)

Patricia Bath was the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency with New York University’s School of Medicine, in 1973.

In 1975, she became the first appointed female faculty member at the UCLA School of Medicine, in the department of ophthalmology. She believed strongly that “eyesight is a basic human right,” and eventually went on to cofound the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Bath studied laser technology and realized its potential for eye surgery. She ended up inventing the Laserphaco probe, in 1986. The Laserphaco probe is a device and method for cataract treatments. This device was what earned her first patent, making her the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention.

The work of these men and women can still be seen, living on, in hospitals and clinics, doctors’ offices, schools, universities, and research laboratories. They are just a few of many who have made life changing contributions in healthcare and medicine as a whole. As Black History Month comes to a close, we hope that this will inspire many of you who are currently pursing careers in healthcare. Celebrating the achievements of trailblazing men and women in this field allows us to understand the importance of representation and diversity in healthcare.

Together we can make an impact on the health of the nations and the generations to come.

The mission of WHEF is to increase accessibility to medications and supplies for healthcare facilities in Guatemala and Grenada. If you are interested in hearing more about the work we are doing, or in connecting with us, you can visit our website, check out our instagram or facebook, or sign up to receive our newletters. If you would like to support us in our work, please donate here.

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