History books may not tell the full stories of the contributions of African-Americans, but that does not change the fact that Black American pioneers in health and wellness have relentlessly strived, (and continue to work in the present) to improve the health of Black communities. Each year Black History Month chooses a theme, and in 2022 it is Black Health and Wellness.
The intersection of race and health has created a fascinating story of people who have administered to African-Americans in a variety of ways over 400 years, including today’s health specialists tackling health inequities in Black communities. Black healthcare professionals have championed Black health and wellness, bringing solutions to challenges that seem intractable at times.
Renowned health and wellness practitioners throughout the years had more than the desire to heal people, for example, early African-American healers did not just treat bodies. They were also pioneer social justice warriors who used their knowledge and connections in any way possible, given the times, to improve Black lives physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. It remains true today, and during Black History Month, it is a good time to consider how Blacks have taken care of Blacks when denied equal access to healthcare services and institutions.
Efforts to bring health equity to African-Americans began when healers first arrived in North America in the 1600s. West African slaves relied heavily on African healers who brought herbal knowledge and a belief in the sacred connection to plants. There were “root doctors” and midwives who provided a variety of healthcare services inaccessible due to racism. It is interesting to note there is currently growing utilization of herbal medicine and midwives in modern medicine, as people look for more natural ways to deal with sickness or manage life changing events such as the birth of a baby. In the mid-1800s, Black men and women began finding ways to get a medical education, despite roadblocks wherever they turned, and then leveraging their status to promote health equity and social justice.
Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865) was denied entrance into a U.S. medical school because he was Black, so he attended Glasgow University in Scotland, earning three degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. He then returned to the U.S. in 1837, working with Frederic Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People in 1855. His scientific writings helped debunk racial theories that said African-Americans were intellectually inferior.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) was the first American Black woman to obtain a medical degree, and she remained the only Black woman physician for many years. In 1865, she began working for General Orlando Brown, the Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau. As a doctor, she had to overcome blatant racism and sexism in order to treat more than 30,000 former slaves who were mostly women and children.
Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first Black licensed nurse in 1879. She was a nursing pioneer and a proponent of women’s suffrage. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) founded Provident Hospital, the first hospital to employ an interracial staff. He was one of the first doctors in history to perform open-heart surgery, and co-founded the National Medical Association in 1895.
Liberian immigrant Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller (1872-1953) was the first Black American psychiatrist, pioneering the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. He became an expert in the treatment of syphilis, training other doctors and advocating for Black war veterans. Dr. Ruth Ella Moore (1903-1994) was the first Black person to earn a PhD in natural sciences - bacteriology. She focused on understanding tuberculosis, and her work was instrumental in finding a cure. Moore was the first woman to head a department at Howard University, paving the way for other Black scientists to enter the field of bacteriology and infectious diseases.
Dr. Jan Cooke Wright (1919-2013) was one of the first Black graduates of Harvard Medical School and founded the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital. She advanced research on anti-cancer chemicals, became the director of the Cancer Research Foundation and had many other firsts.
Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-2019) invented a new technique and device for cataract surgery (called the Laserphaco) and was the first Black American to receive a medical patent. Bath brought ophthalmic surgical devices to Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic and persuaded professors to operate on blind patients, all while completing her education and fellowship at Columbia University.
Dr. William Coleman (1942-2014) was the first permanent Black scientific director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). His research focused on biological and non-biological determinants of health disparities and their influence on diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston (1939-) is the first Black woman director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. She controlled a $5 billion budget used to mostly serve economically disadvantaged patients. Her research in Sickle Cell Disease led to the use of long-term penicillin treatment to prevent infections, as well as SCD screening to administer prophylactic penicillin.
Today, notable names such as neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson are well-known. However, there are thousands of Black healthcare professionals working in underserved communities who relentlessly advocate for people who do not get high quality healthcare simply because of the color of their skin or where they live. Black men and women have made enormous contributions to healthcare for people of all races, but what further sets them apart is the leveraging of their education, experience and position to also drive social justice.
The Black physicians, scientists and medical educators all faced discrimination, with no exception, as they both trained for their positions and sought positions where they could make a change. Without exception, none let discrimination or bias in universities and the workplace stop them. Black History Month educates people on the contributions of Black Americans, helping others understand the damage systemic racism causes and finding ways to work together to address critical life and death issues. The theme this year is health and wellness, but you can pick any theme and find there is so much to learn. Black History Month is only a start.