Healthfirst celebrates the African-American men and women pioneers in medicine.
In honor of Black History Month, Healthfirst looks back at notable African-American men and women who were pioneers in the medical field and helped pave the way for black medical professionals today. They were the “firsts” who helped change the profession and the face of medicine in America.
Many consider James Durham to be the first African-American physician in the United States. Durham was born into slavery and became an assistant to doctors who purchased him. They taught him how to read and write, mix medicines, and work with patients. He did not earn a medical degree, but he bought his freedom and established his own medical practice in New Orleans, where he successfully treated patients during an outbreak of yellow fever in the late 1780s.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler worked as a nurse for almost 10 years before becoming the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. She received her medical degree from New England Female Medical College, Boston, in 1864 and focused her practice on women and children. In 1883, she published what is believed to be the first medical text written by an African-American, which addressed the treatment and prevention of diseases in women and children.
James McCune Smith, a New York City native, was denied college admission in the United States, so he moved to Scotland and earned his medical degree at the University of Glasgow in 1837. It is believed that Dr. Smith is the first African-American man to earn a degree in medicine. He is also believed to be the first black physician to publish articles in U.S. medical journals.
Louis T. Wright graduated from Clark Atlanta University in 1911 and received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1915. He served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I, where he developed a better vaccination technique to protect soldiers from smallpox. After the war, Dr. Wright was the first African-American staff physician at New York’s Harlem Hospital and later became the first African-American surgeon hired by the New York City Police Department. In the 1940s, Wright led a team that studied the use of chlortetracycline (an antibiotic) on humans.
After earning her medical degree (M.D.) at Cornell University in 1981, Dr. Jemison served in the Peace Corps as a medical officer from 1983 to 1985 in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. She went on to research various vaccines at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and continued her medical research in space on the space shuttle Endeavour. In 1992, she became the first African-American woman in space, as part of SPACELAB J, a successful joint U.S. and Japanese science mission.
Healthfirst is very proud to acknowledge these accomplished African-Americans in medicine, and we will continue to do our best to support all the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers in our network so that one day they can make history themselves.
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“Black History Month: A Medical Perspective: Chronology of Achievements,” Duke University Medical Center Library & Archive. Accessed February 1, 2020. https://guides.mclibrary.duke.edu/blackhistorymonth/chronology
“Celebrating 10 African-American medical pioneers,” Haskins, Julia, Association of American Medical Colleges. Accessed February 1, 2020. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/celebrating-10-african-american-medical-pioneers