It’s Black History Month, a time to honor the achievements and struggles of black people, as well as the central role they’ve played in U.S. history.
Here are five black physicians, in chronological order, who have played a pivotal role in breaking barriers in this country and improved the lives and health of countless patients:
1. James McCune Smith
Born enslaved in 1813, Smith rose to become an intellectual, a leading abolitionist, and America’s first black physician. The University of Glasgow invited him to study with them in 1832 after American universities refused to admit him because of his race. Smith accepted and earned three medical degrees during a time when few people earned one. He was the first African American in the nation to own and operate a pharmacy. As a prolific scholar and nuanced writer, he marks the first African American to publish peer-reviewed articles in U.S. medical journals.
2. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
In 1864, Crumpler became the first black woman in the U.S. to earn an M.D. After the Civil War, she provided medical treatment to formerly enslaved black people and published one of the first medical books written by an African American. Titled A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, Crumpler's 1883 book focused on children's and women's health.
3. Daniel Hale Williams
In 1891, Williams founded Chicago's Provident Hospital—the country's first black-owned, interracial medical institution. Two years later, he performed the first-ever successful heart surgery. Williams also advocated for the presence of African Americans in medicine: He co-founded the National Medical Association, which welcomed black members, unlike the American Medical Association at that time, and he took pride in mentoring some of the most outstanding black surgeons of the generation.
4. Charles Richard Drew
Known as the "father of blood banking," Drew pioneered life-saving blood preservation techniques in the late '30s and early '40s and discovered that plasma could replace whole blood transfusions. His research saved thousands of lives during World War II and led to the blood banking process adapted by the American Red Cross. When he became Head of the Department of Surgery at Howard University and Chief of Surgery at Freedmen's Hospital in 1941, he made it his mission to mentor and support African American medical students.
5. Jane Cooke Wright
Wright was pivotal in shaping clinical chemotherapy as a treatment option for cancer patients. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. Three years later, she became associate dean at New York Medical College, making her the highest-ranking black woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. Wright became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society in 1971 and served as the only female founding member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
In the years since these five individuals made history, countless other black physicians have contributed to medicine and benefited humanity as a whole. As an organization, our vision is to improve the lives of patients worldwide. We take time throughout the year to recognize individuals who have improved healthcare globally. Revisit our blog in March during Women’s History Month for a showcase on women who have improved patient care in the field of critical illness.
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