African American Leaders in Medicine

When we think of leaders in medicine some names may immediately come to mind. Do you think of Dr. Jonas Salk? Do you think of Dr. Albert Sabin? Both were leaders in the fight against polio. Many young people today have no direct knowledge of the time that polio was the scourge impacting so many of our children with fearful rates of contagion, death and disability. These doctors were true heroes in their day. Many owe their lives to their research and creativity in creating the vaccines that largely put an end to horror which was polio. In the current COVID-19 pandemic we are waiting for new heroes to emerge. We don’t know who they will be and many will toil in relative anonymity in research labs all over the world. What we know is our stereotypes of who the hero doctors will be have no place now. Continuing this theme I would like to share with you the stories of some hero doctors you may not have heard of. Their stories are fascinating and many faced adversity which would’ve well-prepared them to the adversity we all face today. These trailblazers broke barriers and shattered stereotypes and went on to conduct research, discover treatments, and provide leadership that improved the health of millions They fought slavery, prejudice, and injustice—and changed the face of medicine in America. They invented modern blood-banking, served in the highest ranks of the U.S. government, and much more. Of course there were many black male doctors who made a difference, but we will focus on the women only this time.

1. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831—1895) In 1864, after years as a nurse, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first black woman in the United States to receive an MD. She earned that distinction at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts—where she also was the institution’s only black graduate. After the Civil War, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she worked with other black doctors who were caring for formerly enslaved people in the Freedmen’s Bureau. While she faced sexism and other forms of harassment, Crumpler ultimately found the experience transformative. “I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration,” she wrote. Crumpler also wrote A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts. Published in 1883, the book addresses children’s and women’s health and is written for “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”

2. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (b. 1939) In a pivotal experience while working as an intern at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964, Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD, admitted a baby with a swollen, infected hand. The baby suffered from sickle cell disease, which hadn’t occurred to Gaston until her supervisor suggested the possibility. Gaston quickly committed herself to learning more about it, and eventually became a leading researcher on the disease, which affects millions of people around the world. She became deputy branch chief of the Sickle Cell Disease Branch at the National Institutes of Health, and her groundbreaking 1986 study led to a national sickle cell disease screening program for newborns. Her research showed both the benefits of screening for sickle cell disease at birth and the effectiveness of penicillin to prevent infection from sepsis, which can be fatal in children with the disease. In 1990, Gaston became the first black female physician to be appointed director of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care. She was also the second black woman to serve as assistant surgeon general as well as achieve the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. Gaston has been honored with every award that the Public Health Service bestows.

3. Patricia Era Bath, MD (b. 1942) Interning in New York City in the 1960s sparked a revelation for Patricia Era Bath, MD. Bath, the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency, noticed that rates of blindness and visual impairment were much higher at the Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic, which served many black patients, than at the eye clinic at Columbia University, which mostly served whites. That observation spurred her to conduct a study that found twice the rate of blindness among African Americans compared with whites. Throughout the rest of her career, Bath explored inequities in vision care. She created the discipline of community ophthalmology, which approaches vision care from the perspectives of community medicine and public health. Bath blazed trails in other ways as well, co-founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976, which supports programs that protect, preserve, and restore eyesight. Bath was also the first woman appointed chair of ophthalmology at a U.S. medical school, at the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine in 1983. And she was the first black female physician to receive a medical patent in 1988 for the Laserphaco Probe, a device used in cataract surgery.

4. Alexa Irene Canady, MD (b. 1950) Alexa Irene Canady, MD, nearly dropped out of college due to a crisis of selfconfidence but ultimately went on to achieve dramatic success in medicine. In 1981, she became the first black neurosurgeon in the United States, and just a few years later, she rose to the ranks of chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Canady worked for decades as a successful pediatric neurosurgeon and was ready to retire in Florida in 2001. But she donned her surgical scrubs once again to practice part time at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, where there was a dearth of pediatric neurosurgery services. Canady has been lauded for her patient-centered approach to care, which she said was a boon to her career. “I was worried that because I was a black woman, any practice opportunities would be limited.” But, she noted, “by being patientcentered, the practice growth was exponential.”

5. Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD, MBA (b. 1956) Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD, MBA, may be best known for her tenure as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General, during which she served as first chair of the National Prevention Council. The group of 17 federal agencies was responsible for developing the National Prevention Strategy, which outlined plans to improve health and well-being in the United States. But it’s not just her work at the highest levels of public health that earned her praise. Long before she was appointed “the nation’s doctor” in 2009, Benjamin worked extensively with rural communities in the South. She is the founder and CEO of Bayou Clinic in Bayou La Batre, Louisiana, which provides clinical care, social services, and health education to residents of the small Gulf Coast town. Benjamin helped rebuild the clinic several more times, including after damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a fire in 2006. Of the clinic, she said she hopes that she is “making a difference in my community by providing a clinic where patients can come and receive health care with dignity.”

In conclusion we see that greatness can be found amongst all of us. There is no limit to where we find brilliance, commitment, dedication and the ability to overcome the most difficult obstacles. These are the traits we need more than ever today. Now let us stay safe, be well and love one another. This is the way we will fight the difficult battle ahead of us.

Fondly, for the Diversity Committe


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