25 medical pioneers to celebrate this Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, here are 25 exceptional clinicians and healthcare professionals who advanced medicine and race relations in the U.S.

1. Alexander Augusta, MD. First black physician appointed director of a U.S. hospital. Alexander 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. He later became the first black physician to direct a U.S. hospital — Freedman's Hospital in Washington D.C. After leaving Freedman's, Dr. Augusta continued in private practice and became a professor at Howard University Medical Department in Washington D.C.

2. Patricia Bath, MD. First black female physician awarded a patent for a medical invention. Patricia Bath received her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. She interned at Harlem Hospital in New York City from 1968 to 1969 and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970. Dr. Bath's accomplishments include the invention of a new device and technique for cataract surgery known as laserphaco, for which she was the first black woman to receive a medical patent. She was the first woman appointed chair of ophthalmology at a U.S. medical institution (UCLA) in 1983. Dr. Bath retired from her post 10 years later and became an advocate for telemedicine, serving in roles related to the emerging technology at Howard University and St. George's University in Grenada.

3. Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD. First chair of the National Prevention Council. Dr. Benjamin served as the nation's 18th surgeon general, a position to which she was appointed in 2009. During her tenure, she was first chair of the National Prevention Council, a group of federal agencies focused on healthcare in the U.S. Prior to becoming surgeon general, Dr. Benjamin in 2002 became the first African American woman to become president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. She also is the founder and CEO of BayouClinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., and a member of the boards of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.

4. Leonidas Harris Berry, MD. First black physician on staff at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Leonidas Harris Berry was a prominent gastroenterologist. He became the first black physician on staff at Michael Reese in 1946. However, he struggled to be named to the attending staff of the hospital, even though he was well known in his field and had taught gastroenterology at Cook County and Michael Reese hospitals for years. He made his first formal application for an attending position in 1959 and was repeatedly considered "not qualified." He finally received the rank in 1963, at age 61, after making a final plea to the hospital's trustee board committee. He spent the rest of his medical career as a senior attending physician there. 

5. Robert Boyd, MD. President and co-founder of the first professional organization for black physicians. The National Medical Association is the nation's oldest and largest organization representing black physicians and healthcare professionals. Racial exclusivity and segregation laws at the turn of the 20th century made black physician membership in America's other professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association, virtually impossible. Black physicians frustrated by professional disenfranchisement created the NMA to serve the black medical community. Robert Boyd, MD, of Nashville, Tenn., was appointed the group's first president in 1895.

6. Lonnie Bristow, MD. First black physician elected president of the American Medical Association. Lonnie Bristow earned his medical degree at New York University and practiced as an internist in San Pablo, Calif., for more than 30 years. Dr. Bristow joined the AMA in 1968 after the organization banned racial discrimination within its ranks and allowed black membership. In 1994, Dr. Bristow became the first black physician to lead the organization. Under his leadership, the organization focused on many of the issues Dr. Bristow dedicated his career to, including sickle cell anemia, coronary care and socioeconomic issues impacting healthcare.

7. Alexa Canady, MD. First black female neurosurgeon. Alexa Canady struggled to secure a neurosurgical internship after earning her medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1975. But by 1981, Dr. Canady had become America's first black female neurosurgeon. 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. 

8. Ben Carson, MD. First neurosurgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins attached at the back of the head. Dr. Carson was one of the youngest physicians to direct pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Hospital. He successfully completed the first surgical separation of conjoined twins attached at the back of the head in 1987. Dr. Carson is the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Donald Trump. He earned his bachelor's degree at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and his medical degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and later completed his residency in neurosurgery at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

9. Donna Christian-Christensen, MD. First female physician to serve in Congress. Dr. Christian-Christensen is the first female physician to serve in Congress and the first woman elected as a non-voting delegate to represent the U.S. Virgin Islands. She earned her medical degree from George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., in 1970 and completed her residency in family medicine at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Dr. Christian-Christensen is currently serving her fourth consecutive term in Congress. She served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus's Health Braintrust in 1998, an advocacy group that leads efforts to oversee and advocate for minority health issues on national and international platforms. 

10. Rebecca Crumpler, MD. First black woman awarded a medical degree from a U.S. college. Rebecca Crumpler graduated from New England Female Medical College in Boston in 1864 as the first black woman awarded a medical degree from a U.S. university. Dr. Crumpler achieved this feat at a time when women, regardless of race, were largely barred from secondary education or higher learning opportunities. She published Book of Medical Discourses in 1883, which drew information from her clinical experiences to help women better care for the health of their families.

11. Helen Dickens, MD. First black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons. The only black woman in her graduating class, Helen Dickens earned her medical degree from the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1934. She completed her internship at Provident Hospital in Chicago during which she treated patients with tuberculosis in impoverished communities. In 1945, Dr. Dickens was the first black woman to receive board certification in obstetrics and gynecology. Five years later, she became the first black woman admitted as a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. She served as director of the obstetrics department at Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Collingdale, Pa., for more than 12 years.

12. Charles Drew, MD. First to use blood plasma to store blood for transfusion. Dr. Charles Drew pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. during WWII. After 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 continued on to become chief surgeon at Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the first black examiner for the American Board of Surgery.

13. Joycelyn Elders, MD. First black female physician appointed surgeon general. 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. As U.S. President, Mr. Clinton appointed Dr. Elders the first black U.S. surgeon general in 1993. 

14. Roselyn Epps, MD. First black president of the American Medical Women's Association. Dr. Epps graduated with honors from Washington, D.C.-based Howard University College of Medicine in 1951. Dr. Epps devoted her life to advocating for women's health and public health issues in underserved communities and made extraordinary contributions to public health organizations. Her achievements include presiding as the first black president of the American Medical Women's Association in 1974 and serving as a scientific program administrator at the National Institutes of Health. In her lifetime, Dr. Epps produced more than 90 articles in peer-reviewed journals and served as co-editor for both The Women's Complete Healthbook and Developing a Child Care Program.

15. Kenneth Frazier, JD. First black man to lead a major pharmaceutical company. In 1992, Mr. Frazier joined Merck & Co.'s public affairs division as general counsel, helping to define the pharmaceutical giant's legal strategy over the next 10 years. He rose through the management ranks at Merck until he was appointed chairman and CEO in 2011, becoming the first black man to lead a major pharmaceutical company. Merck is among the five largest drug companies in the world by annual revenue. Mr. Frazier received his undergraduate degree from Pennsylvania State University in University Park and earned his law degree from Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard Law School.

16. Solomon Fuller, MD. First black psychiatrist recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Fuller pioneered Alzheimer's research during his career and advanced the study of many other neurodegenerative diseases, including schizophrenia and manic depression. After earning his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1897, Dr. Fuller became the first black psychiatrist in the U.S. recognized by the APA. He eventually became an emeritus professor of neurology at Boston University. The mental health program at the university bears Dr. Fuller's name today in honor of his contributions to psychiatric research.

17. Marilyn Gaston, MD. First black female director of a U.S. Public Health Service bureau. Marilyn 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. Dr. Gaston was the first black female physician appointed director of HHS' Bureau of Primary Health Care in 1990, where she focused on improving healthcare access to underserved and minority communities. National and international organizations have recognized Dr. Gaston for her social and scientific achievements. She received each type of award given by the U.S. Public Health Service as well as the National Medical Association's most prestigious honor — the NMA Scroll of Merit.

18. William Hinton, MD. First black physician to teach at Harvard Medical School. William 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. 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. 

19. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA. First black female president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey has more than 30 years of experience as a medical practitioner, policymaker, professor and nonprofit executive. In 2003, she became the first black female president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of America's largest philanthropic organizations devoted to public health and healthcare. Before joining the foundation, Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey served as a professor of medicine and healthcare systems at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, directed Penn's Institute on Aging and was chief of geriatric medicine at University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine.

20. Mary Mahoney, RN. First black woman awarded a nursing degree. Ms. Mahoney is credited as America's first black professional nurse. She graduated from Boston-based New England Hospital for Women and Children's training school for nurses in 1879 and became one of the first black members of the American Nurses Association. In addition to her pioneering efforts in nursing, Ms. Mahoney is recognized for her role in the women's suffrage movement. She was among the first women to register to vote in Boston after the ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 26, 1920.

21. Herbert W. Nickens, MD. First director of the HHS Office of Minority Health. Dr. Nickens was an advocate for justice in medical education and healthcare equity for racial and ethnic minorities. In 1986, he became the first director of the HHS Office of Minority Health. He later became the founding vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges community and minority programs division, now Diversity Policy and Programs. Dr. Nickens also played a key role in the association's Project 3000 by 2000, which launched in 1991 to enroll 3,000 underrepresented minority students in medical school annually by 2000.

22. James Smith, MD. First black man to practice with a medical degree in the U.S. James Smith was an American physician, abolitionist and author. He earned his medical degree from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and returned to the U.S. as the first black man to hold and practice with a medical degree. He was also the first black physician to establish and run a pharmacy. He used his training in medicine and statistics to refute common misconceptions about race, intelligence, medicine and society in general. 

23. Louis Wade Sullivan, MD. The only black student in his class at Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Sullivan received his medical degree in 1958 from Boston University School of Medicine, where he was the only black student in his class. He went on to complete his residency at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York City, and later served on the faculty of Boston University School of Medicine from 1966 to 1975. In 1975, he returned to his hometown, Atlanta, where he served as the first dean of the Morehouse College Medical Education Program, which later became Morehouse School of Medicine.

24. Daniel Hale Williams, MD. One of the first physicians to perform a successful open-heart surgery; founded the first interracial and black-owned hospital. Dr. Williams opened Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1893, the first black-owned hospital and the first medical facility with an interracial staff. He was one of the first physicians to complete a successful pericardial surgery, also known as open-heart surgery. He later became chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Dr. Williams was the first black member of the American College of Surgeons and co-founded the National Medical Association with Robert Boyd, MD. He earned his medical degree from Chicago Medical College. 

25. Jane Wright, MD. First woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society. Jane Wright was 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.

This is an update to a 2017 article. Morgan Haefner and Brooke Murphy contributed to the original piece.


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