12 Black American Health and Wellness Pioneers
February is Black History Month in the US, a month dedicated to paying tribute to Black American history. It is also a month dedicated to raising awareness about the deeply inequitable treatment that Black communities have endured in the US, as well as the incredible contributions Black individuals and communities have made to the wellbeing of all people, despite the disadvantages that exist to this day.
This article names twelve of the many Black Americans in history who have had, and continue to have, a profound impact on the health and wellness of people in the US and worldwide.
12 Black American Pioneers that Changed the Course of Global Health
Dr. James McCune Smith (1813–1865)
Dr. James McCune Smith was the first Black American to obtain a medical degree. The fragments of the schoolwork that still survive from his studies at the African Free School in New York demonstrated that he was a brilliant and applied student from early on who defended the virtues of education.
Upon completion of secondary school, James McCune Smith wanted to pursue an education in medicine. Medical schools in the US did not permit the enrollment of Black students, but he did not allow this to stop him from pursuing his professional goals. He entered Glasgow University in Scotland and earned three academic degrees: a baccalaureate, a master’s degree, and a doctorate in medicine.
Despite his home country not allowing him to study to become a medical doctor, he returned to New York in 1837 to apply his knowledge. He was a prominent abolitionist and worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People during the National Colored Convention in Rochester, New York, in 1855, a body that was instrumental in advancing Black people’s rights.
He published numerous scientific and abolitionist writings, including papers that debunked racial theories, such as the Notes on the State of Virginia written by Thomas Jefferson, and others that discredited phrenology, and a critique of the racially-biased US Census of 1840.
In addition to practicing medicine, in the words of historian Thomas M. Morgan, “Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful.”
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895)
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black American physician in the United States. She was born in Delaware but raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt, who cared for the sick using knowledge passed down to her by her ancestors.
Rebecca attended the West-Newton English and Classical School, a prestigious private school in Massachusetts. Shortly after her graduation, she moved to Charlestown in Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse by vocation from 1852 to 1860. She had a passion for caring for the ill and boldly applied to the New England Female Medical College in 1860, only ten years after it was founded. She was accepted, and Rebecca had to defy two strong beliefs that prevailed in that era: First, women lacked the physical strength and emotional hardness to practice medicine. Second, Black people were intellectually inferior.
In 1864, Dr. Crumpler became the first and only Black graduate of the New England Female Medical College, since the College closed its doors in 1873. Additionally, Dr. Crumpler was one of only 300 women physicians registered in 1860 and the only Black woman physician in the United States for years to come.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, Dr. Crumpler worked under General Orlando Brown, the Assistant Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau as a doctor, where she overcame blatant racism and sexism from her colleagues to treat the illnesses of over 30,000 formerly enslaved people, most of whom were women and children.
In 1883, toward the end of her medical career, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses, where she shared knowledge and evidence to treat, prevent, and cure a range of conditions experienced by infants, children, and women. The text, which was the first medical text written by a Black author, was used by physicians of all races for years to come.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845–1926)
Mary Eliza Mahoney is the first Black woman to have completed her nurses’ training in the United States. Even though other Black women in the US worked as nurses and were healers by vocation, including Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler before completing her physician’s training, Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black woman to have received her license to work as a nurse after completing training in the nursing school of the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1879.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents, who moved to Boston from North Carolina, were formerly enslaved and instilled in her a sense of the importance of racial equality. Mary knew that she wanted to become a nurse as early as her teens, so she started working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children before having the opportunity to engage in formal nurses’ training. While at the New England Hospital, she worked in various roles, including janitor, cook, and eventually nurse’s aide.
In 1878, when she was thirty-three years old, Mahoney applied and was admitted to the intensive program at the professional graduate school for nurses. Of the 42 women who entered the program that year, only four women completed it, one of whom was Mary Eliza Mahoney. In 1879, she became the first Black American woman to earn a nursing license. Shortly afterward, Mahoney became one of the first Black members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
Mahoney was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame in 1976 and into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
In addition to being a nursing pioneer, she was also a big proponent of women’s suffrage. Mahoney was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston upon the 19th Amendment’s ratification on August 26, 1920.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856–1931)
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was a physician who founded Provident Hospital, the first hospital to have an interracial staff. He was one of the first physicians in history to perform open-heart surgery.
Daniel Hale Williams III was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to Sarah Price Williams and Daniel Hale Williams II. His father, who had owned a barbershop and worked with the Equal Rights League, died when Daniel was ten years old. After apprenticing as a shoemaker and taking up barbering, he decided to continue his education. Early on, he became an apprentice to surgeon Dr. Henry Palmer and completed further training at the Chicago Medical College.
Upon graduation, he opened up a private clinical practice, where he adopted the most recent sterilization applications developed by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister. At the time, Black physicians were refused staff positions at hospitals, which led him to found the Provident Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1891, the first hospital with a nursing and intern program with a racially integrated staff.
In 1893, a man with a severe stab wound to his chest was brought to Provident Hospital. Dr. Williams successfully sutured the damaged portion of the man’s heart without blood transfusions or modern surgical procedures. He became one of the first surgeons to perform open-heart surgery, and the man on whom he performed the surgery lived for many years after the operation.
In 1894, Williams was appointed chief surgeon of the Freedman’s Hospital, founded to provide care for formerly enslaved Black Americans. He is credited with the facilities’ revitalization and renewal and the extension and diversification of the hospital’s services. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, geared toward Black medical professionals. For close to two decades, he continued his practice as an experienced surgeon and administrator at many hospitals and instructed physicians at several institutions, where he rallied for Black professionals’ presence in medicine.
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller (1872–1953)
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller is the first Black American psychiatrist and a pioneer in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, having studied directly under Alois Alzheimer himself.
Solomon Carter Fuller was originally from Liberia and immigrated to the US at the age of 17. His parents, Solomon C and Anna Ursilla Fuller were Liberian-American. His grandfather was a formerly enslaved person who bought his and his wife’s freedom and helped establish a settlement of formerly enslaved Black Americans in Liberia.
Carter had a great interest in medicine. Upon arrival in the US, he attended Livingstone College in North Carolina, later attending Long Island College Medical School, and completed his medical degree at the Boston University School of Medicine in 1897. Like other Black professionals in the medical field, Carter faced discrimination, underpayment, and underemployment and often performed duties other physicians saw as unimportant or undesirable. While performing autopsies that other physicians didn’t want to perform, he made several medical discoveries that contributed to the medical community’s understanding of pathologies.
Wanting to advance his career, he pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Munich in Germany. He researched pathology and neuropathology, and while he was there, he was selected by Alois Alzheimer to carry out research at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Munich. He became an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis and trained doctors with his knowledge. He was also an advocate for Black war veterans who came through his care.
Upon returning to the US, he continued his research on Alzheimer’s, alongside teaching in the Boston area. His work helped the English-speaking medical community understand the condition and early treatment. Dr. Carter published the first-ever comprehensive review of Alzheimer’s disease while also reporting the ninth case ever diagnosed.
Dr. Ruth Ella Moore (1903–1994)
Dr. Ruth Ella Moore is the first Black person to earn a PhD in the natural sciences and made significant contributions to understanding infectious diseases. Originally from Colombus, Ohio, she was born of a successful artist, entrepreneur, and seamstress. Moore’s mother supported her to pursue her education, and Ruth earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 1926 and her Masters of Science degree in 1927 from Ohio State University. Soon after, she returned to her alma mater to complete her PhD in Bacteriology in 1933, becoming the first Black American ever to do so.
Her doctoral research focused on understanding tuberculosis, which, at the time, was a significant health risk in the United States, as the second leading cause of death. Her work was monumental in helping to find a cure for the disease a decade later.
Upon graduation, she was hired by another Black scholar and scientist, Dr. Hildrus Poindexter, to help reconstruct the clinical division at Howard University. She was a loved professor and soon became head of the Department of Bacteriology until 1960. Dr. Moore was the first woman to head any department at Howard University. Dr. Moore’s contributions and teachings helped pave the way for other Black scientists to enter the field while also helping to eradicate infectious diseases.
In addition to becoming a renowned scholar, Dr. Moore learned the art of sewing from her mother and made beautiful garments for all occasions. Many of her garments are on display in garment museums across the US.
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (1919–2013)
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was the first Black American woman to be named associate dean of a medical school and contributed essential findings to the understanding of cancer and created seminal programs to study chronic diseases.
Jane Cooke Wright was born in New York City in 1919 to Corrine and Louis Tompkins Wright. Louis Tompkins Wright was one of the first Black graduates of Harvard Medical School, the first Black doctor appointed to a staff position at a municipal hospital in New York City, and the founder of the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital.
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright graduated from New York Medical College with honors in 1945 and interned at Bellevue Hospital, where she was an assistant resident in internal medicine until 1946.
In 1949, Dr. Wright became a visiting physician at Harlem Hospital and a staff physician at New York City Public Schools shortly after joining her father, the founder and director of the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital.
Together with her father, Dr. Wright worked to advance research on anti-cancer chemicals, having achieved several patient cancer remission cases. Soon after her father’s death, Dr. Wright became the director of the Cancer Research Foundation. Three years later, at the age of 36, Dr. Wright became an associate professor of surgical research at New York University and the cancer chemotherapy director at NYU Medical Center. In 1964, Dr. Wright was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. The commission was instrumental in establishing treatment centers for chronic diseases nationwide.
Dr. Wright’s legacy was marked by many firsts. In 1967, Dr. Wright was named the associate dean at New York Medical College, becoming the first Black woman to do so and the highest-ranked Black woman at a nationally recognized institution. In 1971, she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society.
She was a trailblazer for oncology, having published numerous papers, promoting cancer research, and opening opportunities for cancer research worldwide.
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston (b. 1939)
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston is a pediatrician who became the first Black woman to direct a Public Health Service Bureau and whose groundbreaking research on sickle cell disease resulted in nationwide screening programs for children at birth.
Marilyn Hughes Gaston was born in 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Dorothy Hughes, a medical secretary, and Myron Hughes, a waiter. Her family was economically disadvantaged, and they lived in public housing for most of Gaston’s childhood. She knew she wanted to become a doctor at age nine when she witnessed her mother fainting in the living room and didn’t know what to do. Her mother had cervical cancer, but they were uninsured, and she wasn’t getting health care. She knew, from then on, that she wanted to do something to change the situation.
At age 12, Gaston’s family moved out of public housing, which allowed her to attend a college preparatory school. While Gaston was very motivated to study medicine, she faced discrimination, racism, and sexism for being a poor Black woman. However, her parents supported her dreams and motivated her to push through harsh experiences to achieve her goals. Gaston also looked up to her godmother, who made a pointed effort to desegregate public spaces.
After graduating high school, Gaston studied zoology at the University of Miami in Ohio after feeling too much resistance from medical and academic professionals to her studying pre-medicine. Upon graduating in 1960, however, she was encouraged by a doctor in the hospital where she worked to pursue medicine. She enrolled in the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine in 1964. Dr. Gaston was one of only six Black women who graduated that year.
Dr. Gaston interned at the Philadelphia General Hospital, where she gained an interest in Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) after admitting a baby with a badly swollen hand and no evidence of trauma. The supervising resident suggested she check for SCD, and sure enough, the baby did have the condition and was swelling from infection. From that time on, she set out to learn everything she could about SCD and, in fact, changed the course of her life and how we screen and treat SCD in the US and the world.
Dr. Gaston secured several federal grants to study SCD in children. In 1986 she published the results of a groundbreaking study that proved the effectiveness of long-term penicillin treatment to prevent infections in people with SCD. The study also laid the groundwork for SCD screening to administer prophylactic penicillin. By 1987, 40 states had SCD screening programs, a move that saved countless lives.
In 1990, Dr. Gaston became the first Black woman director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the US Health Resources and Services Administration. In this position, she controlled a $5 billion budget and served 12 million patients, most of whom were economically disadvantaged.
Because of her contributions to public health, she received the National Medical Association scroll of merit in 1999. She had a day established in her honor in Cincinnati and Lincoln Heights, Ohio. Additionally, a scholarship program at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine established a scholarship program in her name dedicated to giving full scholarships to economically disadvantaged minority students every year.
Dr. Patricia E. Bath (1942–2019)
Dr. Patricia E. Bath was an ophthalmologist, inventor, and laser scientist best known for her contributions to blindness prevention, treatment, and cure. Among her contributions with the most impact on public health was the invention of a new device and technique for cataract surgery known as the Laserphaco. When she filed for and received a medical patent for the device, she became the first Black American woman to do so.
Dr. Bath was interested in medicine since she was a child when she heard about Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s service to people with leprosy in the Congo. She excelled in school and began receiving awards for her scientific research at sixteen. She earned her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine, interned at the Harlem Hospital in 1969, and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University in 1970. She continued her training at New York University, where she became the first resident in ophthalmology.
Dr. Bath was a crucial figure in bringing ophthalmic surgical devices to Harlem Hospital’s Eye Clinic. She persuaded her professors to operate on blind patients for free while at Columbia.
When asked what led her to her career path, she responded, “My love of humanity and passion for helping others inspired me to become a physician.”
Dr. William G. Coleman Jr. (1942–2014)
Dr. William G. Coleman Jr. was the first permanent Black scientific director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Intramural Research Program (IRP). He directed the NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. He took the leadership on transdisciplinary research that focused primarily on the biological and non-biological determinants of health disparities and their influence on the outcomes of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, among other chronic diseases.
Before being appointed to the NIH, Dr. Coleman made vital contributions to understanding bacterial antibiotic resistance and pathogenic mechanisms of Helicobacter pylori. These bacteria are associated with gastritis, ulcers, and gastritis cancers.
Dr. Yvonne Maddox, former acting director of the NIH, said of Dr. Coleman, “Dr. Coleman’s contributions to science are far-reaching. People who have never met Bill Coleman will benefit from his work, particularly in the field of infectious diseases, which present great challenges.”
Upon his death, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) founded the William G. Coleman Jr., Ph.D. Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Innovation Award designed to support high-impact one-year innovative research projects.
Dr. Mae C. Jemison (b. 1956)
Dr. Mae C. Jemison is best known as the first Black female astronaut and the first Black American woman in space. Before becoming an astronaut, she earned her medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in 1981. While earning her degree, Dr. Jemison studied abroad in Cuba and Kenya and worked in a refugee camp in Thailand, which were experiences that ignited a passion for global health. Shortly after her internship at the LA County and USC Medical Center, she became the Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia, where she taught and carried out medical research.
In 1985, she made a career change and applied to NASA’s training program. In June of 1987, she became the first African American woman to be admitted into the NASA astronaut training program. After leaving NASA in 1993, she accepted a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth. She established Jemison Group, a consulting firm that integrates critical social-cultural issues into the design of engineering and science projects, such as satellite technology for healthcare delivery.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (b. 1986)
Dr. Kizzimekia Corbett, PhD, is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who is at the forefront of the development and production of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was among the few NIH scientists who briefed then-president Donald Trump on the coronavirus.
Corbett was born in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina, and grew up in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Her teachers recognized her talent when she was very young, and they encouraged her mother to place her in advanced classes.
Dr. Corbett earned her BS in Biological Sciences with a secondary major in Sociology from the University of Maryland in 2008. While earning her BS, she earned the honors of Meyerhoff Scholar and NIH Undergraduate Scholar. She then earned her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014.
Upon graduation, she was appointed to the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In addition to her work developing the coronavirus vaccine, she has developed a universal influenza vaccine currently in Phase I clinical trials. She boasts 15 years of expertise, studying and developing solutions for the dengue virus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus, and coronavirus.
Dr. Corbett’s work and what she represents is vital in a country where Black students are less likely to engage in STEM fields.
February is a month dedicated to honoring Black history, but we must honor Black lives without ceasing. The twelve people named in this article represent a small number of countless people who have made contributions to the world that significantly improved all people’s health and wellbeing. They made these contributions despite having experienced profound discrimination, racism, underemployment, and underpayment throughout their personal and professional lives.
As a health and wellness community, it is vital that we continue to honor Black individuals’ and communities’ presence and contributions in the health and wellness space—past, present, and future.