It’s 2017 and Black doctors only make up about 7.5 percent of the US physician workforce. While there’s still much progress to be made, African Americans already figure significantly in the history of medicine.
There were many articles about African American doctors who were firsts in their fields. I pared it down to 14 that I thought were outstanding. Here are 14 African American MDs who made medical history:
- James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn an MD and practice in the United States. After he was denied college admission in the United States, he moved to Scotland and earned his medical degree there in 1837. Smith also is believed to be the first black physician to publish articles in U.S. medical journals. His writings include texts on science, education, racism and literature. Dr. Smith opened what’s thought to be the country’s first African American-owned pharmacy. He used his training in medicine and statistics to refute common misconceptions about race, intelligence, medicine and society in general.
- Alexander Augusta was the first black physician appointed director of a US hospital. Dr. Augusta earned his medical degree at Trinity Medical College in Toronto, Canada, and established a successful medical practice in Canada before relocating to the U.S. in 1862. Drafted to serve in the Civil War, Dr. Augusta became the first commissioned black surgeon in the U.S. Army in 1863. He later became the first black physician to direct a U.S. hospital — Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C, at the placement of President Lincoln. In 1865, Augusta was promoted to lieutenant colonel, at the time the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. military. He was mustered out of service in 1866. After the military, Augusta was in charge of the Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia until 1868 when he started his own practice in Washington, D.C. Dr. Augusta continued in private practice and became a professor at Howard University Medical Department. He died in 1890 and was the first black officer to be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.
- Rebecca Lee Crumpler, a Delaware native, is widely acknowledged as the first African-American woman physician in the U.S. She was born in 1831 and worked as a nurse in Massachusetts before applying to the New England Female Medical College in 1860.She graduated in 1864, becoming the first and only African-American graduate of that institution, which closed in 1873. For many years, Crumpler’s status as the first African-American woman to become a physician was not known; that distinction was mistakenly given to Rebecca Cole, who graduated from Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania three years after Crumpler’s graduation Dr. Crumpler published a Book of Medical Discourses in 1883, which drew information from her clinical experiences to help women better care for the health of their families It is one of the very first medical publications by an African-American. She purposely moved her practice to Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War ended to serve African-Americans there, despite the intense racism that was prevalent.
- Daniel Hale Williams was a doctor of many “firsts”. He was the first physician to found a black-owned hospital with an interracial staff – Chicago’s Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in 1891, one of the first physicians to perform open heart surgery in the US in 1893, the first to establish a professional organization for black medical practitioners in 1895 – the National Medical Association, and was the first black member of the American College of Surgeons which he was a charter member of in 1913. He was well ahead of his time, using sterilization procedures in his practice that were developed by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister to prevent germ transmission. From 1893-1898, he was Surgeon-in-Chief at, Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, DC. He revitalized the hospital that cared for former slaves, improving surgical procedures, increasing specialization, and launching ambulance services. .
- Solomon Carter Fuller was the first Black psychiatrist in the United States recognized by the APA. Fuller researched degenerative brain disorders with Dr. Alois Alzheimer while in medical school and became an authority on Alzheimer’s disease research. After earning his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1897, Fuller pioneered Alzheimer’s research during his career and advanced the study of many other neurodegenerative diseases, including schizophrenia and manic depression. He published the first comprehensive review of Alzheimer’s cases in 1912. He also helped correctly diagnose and train others to correctly diagnose the side effects of syphilis to prevent black war veterans from getting misdiagnosed, discharged, and ineligible for military benefits. He eventually became an emeritus professor of neurology at Boston University.
- William Augustus Hinton: graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1909, after which he worked in Harvard’s Wassermann Laboratory. Dr. Hinton was appointed professor of preventive medicine and hygiene at Harvard Medical School in 1918 — the first black instructor in the school’s history. From 1921-1946, he taught bacteriology and immunology at Harvard before being promoted to clinical professor in 1949.Dr. Hinton later became a world-renowned expert in the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis. In 1927, he developed a diagnostic test for syphilis, known as the Hinton test, which was eventually endorsed by the U.S. Public Health Service. Hinton was the first African-American physician to publish a textbook, called Syphilis and Its Treatment.
- Charles R. Drew was the first African American to earn an MD from Columbia University in 1940. Drew pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. during WWII. Following the war, Dr. Drew began developing a blood storage program at the American Red Cross but resigned soon after officials decided to segregate the blood of African-Americans Dr. Drew was first black examiner for the American Board of Surgery. He was the first Director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, a professor at Howard University and Chief Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital.
- Louis T. Wright graduated fourth in his class at Harvard Medical School. His step-father, William Fletcher Penn, was the first African-American to graduate from Yale School of Medicine. While serving as a lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps in World War I, Dr. Wright developed the intradermal injection vaccination technique. In 1919, he moved to New York amid racial tensions in Georgia to set up a private practice in Harlem and established ties to the Harlem Hospital, where he was the first African-American on the surgical staff. I n his thirty years at the hospital, he started the Harlem Hospital Bulletin, headed the team that first used chlortetracycline on humans, founded the hospital’s cancer research center, and earned a reputation as an expert on head injuries
- Jane C. Wright, daughter of Louis T. Wright and niece of Harold Dadford West, president of Meharry Medical College, is a pioneering cancer researcher and accomplished surgeon. Her work is largely responsible for elevating chemotherapy from a last-ditch effort at treating cancer patients to a viable treatment option. She completed her residency at Harlem (N.Y.) Hospital, where she later served as chief resident. In 1964, working as part of a team at New York University School of Medicine, Dr. Wright developed a nonsurgical method using a catheter system to deliver heavy doses of anticancer drugs to previously hard-to-reach tumor areas in the kidneys, spleen and elsewhere. Dr. Wright served as associate dean and head of cancer chemotherapy department at New York Medical College in New York City in 1967. In 1964, she was the only woman among seven physicians who helped to found the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and in 1971, she was the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.
- Patricia Bath is a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of blindness. She also advocated for eyesight as a basic human right by founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976. She discovered that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma than others and as a result, created a community ophthalmology system which increased eye care to the underserved. Bath became the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973, which led to her appointment two years later as the first woman faculty member at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1988, Bath became the first African-American woman physician to receive a medical patent with her Laserphaco Probe, which improved cataract treatment. Dr. Bath retired from her post 10 years later and has since become an advocate for telemedicine, serving in roles related to the emerging technology at Howard University and St. George’s University in Grenada.
- Alexa Canady became the first African-American woman neurosurgeon in the U.S. in 1981. She served as chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987-2001. She completed her residency at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and went on to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery, practicing at a number of respected medical institutions. In her most notable role, she served as chief of neurosurgery at Detroit-based Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 to 2001. Under her guidance, the department gained national recognition and has consistently been ranked among America’s best pediatric neurosurgery programs in S. News & World Report‘s Best Children’s Hospitals list. Intending to retire when she moved to Florida, Canady instead began practicing part-time after learning that there were no pediatric neurosurgeons based at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital.
- Marilyn Hughes Gaston was the first African American and female director of a public health bureau – the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Primary Health Care where she focused on improving healthcare access to underserved and minority communities from 1990-2001. Gaston earned her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 1964 and completed her internship in pediatric medicine at Philadelphia General Hospital. She is credited for her groundbreaking research in sickle cell anemia and published a study of sickle-cell anemia in 1986 that led to a nationwide test for newborns.
- Joycelyn Elders The unapologetically outspoken Dr. Elders was appointed the first African-American Surgeon General by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and subsequently asked to resign when the administration took exception to Dr. Elders’ outspoken advocacy of early sex education, drug education and distribution of contraception in schools. Born to a family of impoverished farmers in 1933, Jocelyn Elders grew up in a rural, segregated pocket of Arkansas. In spite of socioeconomic obstacles, Dr. Elders earned her medical degree from the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock in 1960. She returned to the university for her residency in 1961, after which she became chief resident responsible for a team of all-white, all-male residents and interns. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Elders director of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987. Dr. Elders spent many years teaching medicine and was an accomplished pediatric endocrinologist. She remains a voice for progressive ideas in medicine and education.