In honor of Black History Month, we want to celebrate African-Americans who have made a difference in the health world. People of color were not always welcome in the medical field, and even African-Americans who made forward strides in medical research were often overlooked in historical accounts. The figures in this article, however, have either been doctors, patients, public officials, activists, or researchers. Thanks to these individuals, there have been advancements in breast cancer research, vision health, asthma, and health care policies. Let’s meet some of these inspirational people and continue to honor their achievements.
Henry Blair (1807-1860):
There isn’t much information about the life of Henry Blair, but he did invent the seed planter, which allowed farmers to plant corn quickly and efficiently. He was also the second African-American to hold a United States patent. He also invented a cotton planter that deposited seeds evenly in freshly turned soil. He was also the second African-American inventor to be rewarded a patent for his invention.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895):
In 1864, Dr. Crumpler became the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree. After working with clinics and conducting research to help improve the health of black communities, she dedicated the rest of her life to providing medical treatment to newly freed African-Americans in the South after the Civil War.
Daniel Hale Williams (1858-1931):
Dr. Williams started the first African-American-owned hospital in America. He was a renowned cardiologist, who was actually one of the first doctors to perform open-heart surgery on a human patient. Before he died, Dr. Williams co-founded the National Medical Association for African-American doctors.
Mary E. Mahoney (1845-1926):
A Boston native, Mary E. Mahoney was acknowledged as the first African-American woman to finish nurse’s training, graduating from the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1879. Not only was she among the first African-American members of the American Nurse’s Association (ANA), but she was also one of the members in the inaugural class of the Nursing Hall of Fame, inducted in 1976. Since 1952, the the ANA has awarded the Mary Elizabeth Mahoney Award to individuals who make significant contributions to nursing.
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951):
Henrietta Lacks was the progenitor of the one of the most important cell lines in medical history: the HeLa cell line. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed a piece of her tumor and discovered that her cells never died. Even though she died in 1951, her “immortal” cells helped unlock the polio vaccine, and were essential for gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.
Charles Drew (1904-1950):
Charles Drew was the first African-American to graduate with a degree in medicine from Columbia University. He was a blood plasma specialist who helped pioneer blood transfusions. Drew became the head of the Red Cross and helped abolish prejudiced policies about blood donations from different races.
Phill Wilson (1956-present):
Phill Wilson and his partner were diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980s, a time when the AIDS epidemic was on the rise in America. From the time he was diagnosed, Wilson has been an activist with the belief that African-Americans needed a stronger response to the AIDS epidemic. Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999 to conduct trainings and publish studies & articles about HIV/AIDS awareness around the country. He continually fights to raise awareness and will never lose hope.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders (1933-present):
This woman has been a powerful voice in public health for several decades. After serving in the army, Elders enrolled in medical school in 1956. By 1961 she was the chief resident at the University of Arkansas, where she oversaw the all-white and all-male interns and residents. in 1978, Elders became the first Arkansas resident to get board certified in pediatric endocrinology, and she continued research in this field through the 1980s. At the time, Gov. Bill Clinton made Elders the head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987. She lobbied for improved local sexual education courses and initiated conversations about this on a national level as well. After Clinton was elected president, he named Elders U.S. Surgeon General in 1993, but she only lasted 15 months because her views on contraception was considered controversial.
Dr. Teletia Taylor (1961-present):
According to research, breast cancer is the number one killer of black women. Dr. Teletia Taylor, assistant professor of Medicine and Psychology at Howard University, was a researcher in a study that revealed that women who faced frequent discrimination had a higher risk of developing breast cancer. She is continuing her research, investigating how stress management therapy may be a better option than chemotherapy for cancer patients.
Michelle Obama (1964-present):
While Michelle Obama may be relaxing after serving as the First Lady for two terms, she was no slouch in the White House. Michelle is a health advocate and continues to raise awareness about childhood obesity with her Let’s Move! program. Her mission is to help lower child obesity rates in America, and this work has helped bring healthier lunches to schools nationwide.
Tracye McQuirter (1966-present):
Tracye McQuirter, a long time animal rights activist, 30-year vegan, and nutritionist, released a free vegan guide to help African-Americans reclaim their health. She partnered with Farm Sanctuary, an animal rescue organization, to release this guide. Only 3% of African-Americans are vegan, but McQuirter believes that African-Americans benefit most from eating plant-based diets, primarily because it is a part of their cultural heritage.