February marks Black History Month. As a news provider and publisher in the medical field for more than thirty years, we at MedLearn wish to seize upon the occasion to reflect on medical milestones and contributions from Black Americans.
The first Black American to practice medicine with a license was Dr. James McCune Smith, who earned his degree in 1837 and had to travel to Scotland for an education. He returned to the United States to practice medicine where he had been denied training. This remarkable man went on to publish a variety of articles in medical journals, including some refuting pseudoscientific racial theories. The first Black woman to practice with a license came a few decades later. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler spent ten years as a nurse before becoming a physician. In 1883, she wrote the Book of Medical Discourses, a medical text considered to be the first of its kind written by a Black doctor, which focused on health and disease prevention in women and children, written specifically for nurses and mothers.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, an early adapter of Lister and Pasteur’s sterilization techniques, performed one of the first successful open-heart surgeries in 1893. He did this to repair a stab wound. Dr. Williams did so without the benefit of blood transfusion technology. That technology, which is now common, began with the work of another Black American, Dr. Charles Drew. Dr. Drew, who went on to be a professor at Howard University, developed the storage of blood plasma in the beginning of the Second World War. Every year, four and a half million Americans now receive a transfusion. The work of these two visionary and incredibly skilled men has saved literally millions of lives.
The study of degenerative neurological conditions in America began in the 1890s, with the work of Boston University’s professor of pathology and neurology, Solomon Carter Fuller, the first Black psychiatrist in the United States. Dr. Alois Alzheimer selected him to work in his laboratory in Munich. Not only did Dr. Fuller translate Alzheimer’s work into English, he also authored the first comprehensive overview of what is now known as Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright made history in many ways, but perhaps most of all by developing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia and lymphoma in the 1950s and 1960s. She also pioneered cancer research centered on tissue samples.
While not a physician, Otis Boykin’s work in electronics changed the world several times over, and without his research, the first implantable pacemaker would have been impossible.
The list of significant advances in medicine led by Black doctors and nurses is a long one, and a short article such as this can barely scratch the surface of the history. Learn more by clicking any of the above links to informative resources on this topic.