31 Black medical pioneers to know

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In honor of Black History Month, here are 31 clinicians and healthcare professionals who advanced medicine and race relations in the U.S.

1. William G. Anderson, DO. First Black surgical resident in Detroit and the first Black president of the American Osteopathic Association. Dr. Anderson, a professor of surgery and senior adviser to the dean of the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing, became the first Black president of the American Osteopathic Association in 1994. He was also the first Black surgical resident in Detroit. During the civil rights movement, Dr. Anderson worked with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy to lead the Albany Movement calling for an end to community segregation.

2. Alexander Augusta, MD. First Black physician appointed director of a U.S. hospital.
Dr. Augusta was born in Norfolk, Va., in 1825. In the 1850s, he earned his medical degree at Trinity Medical College in Toronto 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 Black man commissioned as a medical officer and the highest-ranking Black officer in the U.S. Army. He later became the first Black physician to direct a U.S. hospital — the old Freedmen's Hospital at Camp Barker, now Howard University Hospital, in Washington, D.C. Dr. Augusta became a professor at the Howard University Medical Department and was the first Black faculty member of a medical school. 

3. Patricia Bath, MD. First Black female physician awarded a patent for a medical invention. Dr. Bath was born in 1942 and received her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. She interned at Harlem Hospital in New York City from 1968-69 and later completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Dr. Bath's accomplishments include the invention of a new device for cataract surgery known as the laserphaco probe, for which she was the first Black woman to receive a medical patent. She also was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, and the first female faculty member in the ophthalmology department at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles. Dr. Bath retired from her position at the UCLA Medical Center in 1993 and became an advocate for telemedicine.

4. Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD. First chair of the National Prevention Council. Dr. Benjamin served as the nation's 18th surgeon general from 2009-13. During her tenure, she was first chair of the National Prevention Council, a group of federal agencies focused on healthcare in the U.S. Before becoming surgeon general, Dr. Benjamin founded BayouClinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., and in 1995 became the first African American woman and first person younger than 40 to be elected to the American Medical Association board of trustees. She also served as president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama from 2002-03 and was the first African American woman to serve in that role at a state medical society.

5. Leonidas Harris Berry, MD. First Black physician on staff at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Dr. Berry, a specialist in digestive tract diseases who also devised a gastroscopic instrument, became the first Black physician on staff at Michael Reese Hospital and the first Black internist at Cook County Hospital, both in Chicago, in 1946. However, he struggled to be named to the attending staff of Michael Reese, 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 to be named to the Michael Reese attending staff 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 at the hospital. 

6. Robert Boyd, MD, DDS. 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. Dr. Boyd, of Nashville, Tenn., co-founded the group in 1895 and was the first NMA president. He also was the first African American dentist and doctor to open a practice in Nashville.

7. Otis Boykin. Black inventor who improved the pacemaker. Born in Dallas in 1920, Mr. Boykin graduated from Fisk College in Nashville, Tenn., in 1941 and then worked as a lab assistant with the Majestic Radio and TV Corp. in Chicago. Later, he held a job with the P.J. Nilsen Research Laboratories and eventually began researching and inventing himself. His inventions include a wire precision resistor, for which he received a patent in 1959, and a control unit that improved the pacemaker, a device that controls a person's heartbeat. Overall, Mr. Boykin patented nearly 30 electronic devices during his career.

8. Lonnie Bristow, MD. First Black physician elected president of the American Medical Association. Dr. Bristow, a board-certified internal medicine physician, earned his medical degree from the New York University College of Medicine in New York City and went on to practice medicine in San Pablo, Calif. Dr. Bristow joined the American Medical Association in 1970 after the organization banned racial discrimination within its ranks and allowed Black membership in 1968. He later became the first African American to serve as a member of the American Medical Association board of trustees and the first Black chair of the board. In 1995, Dr. Bristow became the first Black physician to lead the organization as president. Under his leadership, the American Medical Association focused on many of the issues Dr. Bristow dedicated his career to, including sickle cell anemia, coronary care and socioeconomic issues affecting healthcare.

9. Alexa Canady, MD. First Black female neurosurgeon. Dr. Canady's interest in neurosurgery grew during her time in medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After attending medical school, she struggled to obtain an internship, but she eventually accepted a surgical internship at Yale-New Haven (Conn.) Hospital in 1975, becoming the program's first woman and first African American enrollee. By 1981, Dr. Canady had become the United States' first Black female neurosurgeon. She completed her residency at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and went on to join the neurosurgery department at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She served as chief of neurosurgery at Detroit-based Children's Hospital of Michigan from 1987 to 2001.

10. Ben Carson, MD. First neurosurgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins attached at the back of the head. Dr. Carson was among the youngest physicians to direct pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Hospital. He successfully completed the first surgical separation of occipital craniopagus twins in 1987. Dr. Carson served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Donald Trump. He earned his bachelor's degree at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and, in 1977, his medical degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He later completed his residency in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University's medical school in Baltimore.

11. Donna Christian-Christensen, MD. First female physician to serve in Congress. Dr. Christian-Christensen became 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 in the 1990s. 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., in 1974. Dr. Christian-Christensen served in Congress from Jan. 3, 1997, to Jan. 3, 2015. For 15 years, she served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus' Health Braintrust, an advocacy group that leads efforts to oversee and advocate for minority health issues on national and international platforms.

12. Rebecca Crumpler, MD. First Black woman awarded a medical degree from a U.S. college. Dr. 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 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.

13. Helen Dickens, MD. First Black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons. The only Black woman in her graduating class, Dr. 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 in Philadelphia. 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 Philadelphia from 1945-51 before joining the city's Women's Hospital and eventually becoming chief of obstetrics and gynecology there.

14. Charles Drew, MD. First to use blood plasma to store blood for transfusion. Dr. Drew pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. during World War II. 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 went on to become chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., now Howard University Hospital, and the first Black examiner for the American Board of Surgery.

15. Joycelyn Elders, MD. First Black female physician appointed surgeon general. Born to a family of impoverished farmers in 1933, Dr. Elders grew up in a rural, segregated part 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, during which she became chief resident responsible for a team of all-white, all-male residents and interns. Then-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. 

16. 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 wrote 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.

17. Kenneth Frazier. First Black man to lead a major pharmaceutical company. In 1992, Mr. Frazier joined Merck & Co.'s public affairs division and was 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 chair and CEO in 2011, becoming the first Black person to lead a major pharmaceutical company. He plans to retire from Merck on June 30, 2021. 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.

18. Solomon Carter 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 center for students at the university bears Dr. Fuller's name today in honor of his contributions to psychiatric research.

19. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD. First Black female director of a U.S. Public Health Service bureau. Dr. 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 for 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.

20. Patrice Harris, MD. First Black woman to be president of the American Medical Association. Dr. Harris became the first Black woman to lead the American Medical Association as president in 2019. Prior to her appointment, she had served on the AMA's board of trustees since 2011, and was chair from 2016-17. Dr. Harris currently oversees the AMA's efforts around the opioid epidemic and has chaired the association's opioid task force since 2014. Dr. Harris is a psychiatrist from Atlanta. She earned her medical degree from West Virginia University in Morgantown in 1992.

21. William Hinton, MD. First Black physician to teach at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hinton graduated from Boston-based Harvard Medical School in 1912, after which he worked in Harvard's Wassermann Laboratory. He became the first Black person promoted to the rank of professor at Harvard Medical School in 1949. The appointment came more than 30 years after joining the faculty and only a year before he retired. Dr. Hinton was a world-renowned expert in the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis. He was the first Black person to write a medical textbook in the U.S. Published in 1936, it was called Syphilis and its Treatment.

22. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD. 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. She served in that role until 2017. 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.

23. Miles Vandarhurst Lynk, MD. Co-founder of the first professional organization for Black physicians. After graduating from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., in 1891, Dr. Lynk became the first Black physician in Jackson, Tenn. He continued to break barriers throughout his life, including founding the first medical journal published by an African American, The Medical and Surgical Observer. Perhaps he is most notable for co-founding the National Medical Association for African American Physicians in 1895. The NMA is the nation's oldest and largest organization representing Black physicians and healthcare professionals.

24. 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.

25. 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.

26. Barbara Ross-Lee, DO. First Black woman to be appointed dean of an American medical school. Dr. Ross-Lee is credited with helping pave pathways for minorities and women in the osteopathic profession. In 1993, Dr. Ross-Lee became the first Black woman to lead a U.S. medical school as dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine of Ohio University in Athens. She held that role until 2001. She was appointed by the Institute of Medicine to join the Consensus Committee on the Governance and Financing of Graduate Medical Education in 2012. Dr. Ross-Lee graduated from the East Lansing-based Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1973.

27. Velma Scantlebury, MD. The first Black female transplant surgeon in the U.S.
Dr. Scantlebury served as the associate director of the kidney transplant program at Christiana Care in Newark, Del., from 2008-20. Her research includes the results of donation and transplantation in Black communities, increasing organ donation in Black communities through education and awareness, increasing the incidence of living donor transplantation and treating viral kidney infections. Dr. Scantlebury previously worked at the University of South Alabama's regional transplant center, where she was a professor of surgery, assistant dean of community education and director of transplantation. She has performed more than 2,000 transplants.

28. James McCune Smith, MD. First Black man to practice with a medical degree in the U.S. Dr. McCune Smith was an American physician, abolitionist and author. He earned his medical degree from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1837, and returned to New York as the first Black man in the U.S. to hold and practice with a medical degree. He was also the first Black physician to establish and run a pharmacy. Dr. McCune Smith used his training in medicine and statistics to refute misconceptions about race, intelligence, medicine and society in general.

29. 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 1966-75. 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. He left Morehouse to become secretary of HHS from 1989-92, and in 2003 was appointed by President George W. Bush to chair the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

30. 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 1891, 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.

31. Jane Wright, MD. First woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society. Dr.  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 Hospital in New York City, 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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