Black History in Healthcare and its Ongoing Legacy

February is National Black History Month! This month, we will celebrate some of the pioneers and achievements in the field of healthcare that have been made by African Americans over the centuries. Black history is incredibly important to healthcare because it serves to recognize the many ways in which African Americans have contributed to the development of healthcare and medicine. Celebrating this history can provide a more comprehensive understanding of how medicine and healthcare has evolved and help us understand the intersection of race, medicine, and healthcare.

James McCune Smith

The earliest known African American doctor was James McCune Smith, who received his medical degree in 1837.  He was an early pioneer in the healthcare field, particularly in the realm of healthcare access and equity. In addition to being a noted abolitionist and abolitionist speaker, he was a prolific writer and published several books, articles, and pamphlets advocating for the rights of African Americans to access healthcare. He argued that education, rather than legislation, was the key to improving health among African Americans. Throughout his career, he worked to promote public health initiatives for African Americans, such as campaigning for better sanitation in the South, and fought against medical racism in the medical profession. He was an integral part of the early civil rights movement, and his legacy continues to this day.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first black female doctor, graduated from medical school in 1864. She was a major advocate for women’s rights and worked as a nurse during the Civil War.  Crumpler’s book, “Book of Medical Discourses,” was published in 1883 and was the first medical text written by an African American author. It was an invaluable resource for medical practitioners of the time, as it provided an in-depth look at the diseases and treatments of the era. Her work opened the door for more African Americans to pursue a medical career. Her impact on healthcare continues to inspire medical practitioners and researchers today.

Charles Drew

Dr. Charles Drew, who made significant advances in the field of blood transfusions in the 20th century. His work greatly improved the safety and efficiency of blood transfusions, which had previously been extremely dangerous and unreliable. He developed a process for preserving and storing blood plasma, which was instrumental in helping to save the lives of thousands of soldiers during World War II. He also developed the concept of “blood banks”, which allowed for the safe and efficient storage of large amounts of blood for transfusion. His work saved countless lives and continues to have a major impact on the medical field today.

Rebecca Cole

Dr. Rebecca Cole was the second African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States and the first to graduate from the New England Female Medical College in 1867.   . She was a vocal advocate for the rights of women to receive medical education and medical care and a major force in improving healthcare access and quality for African Americans. She worked as a physician in both Boston and Philadelphia, where she founded the first medical school for African Americans. She also wrote extensively on health issues and advocated for better access to healthcare services for African Americans. She was a major influence in advancing healthcare through her work and dedication to improving access and quality of care for all people.

Louis T. Wright

Dr. Louis T. Wright was the first African American on the surgical staff of a non-segregated hospital in New York City. As a major advocate for civil rights and a surgeon for the U.S. Army during World War II, Louis T. Wright had a major impact on healthcare. He was one of the first African American physicians to be certified by the American Board of Surgery, and he was one of the early pioneers of open-heart surgery.  He was a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and the American Medical Association. In addition, he was a leader in the civil rights movement, working to end segregation in hospitals and medical schools. His work and dedication to healthcare helped open many doors for African Americans in the medical field, and his legacy of service and advocacy lives on today.

The Continued Impact

Modern times have seen African Americans continue to make significant advances in healthcare. For instance, Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to go into space in 1992, which helped to break down barriers in science and medicine and inspired many to pursue their dreams. Another modern Black healthcare professional impacting the industry is Chidiebere Ibe, who is working to include Black people in medical literature and combating misrepresentation and misdiagnosis by illustrating different conditions on Black people. As the healthcare continues to advance, Black healthcare professionals will continue to impact and inspire future generations.


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