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  • Zara Ayanna Salmon

Celebrating 28 Black Health Care Professionals Throughout History

Updated: Mar 14

During the month of February, Americans celebrate Black History Month to highlight the many advancements that black people have contributed to society. In honor of this, we are featuring 28 black health care professionals for the 28 days in February.

Dr. Alexa Canady was the first black woman to become a neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981. Over the course of her career she has been inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame, received the American Medical Women's Association President's Award, and has received 3 honorary degrees.

Henrietta Lacks cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line. Though her cells were illegally harvested, they are responsible for the development of the polio vaccine and have helped significantly with cancer and HIV research among others.

Mary Grant Seacole who was born in 1805, in Kingston, Jamaica, Seacole became a doctress, nursing British soldiers during epidemics of cholera, dysentery, and yellow fever. After refusals by both the British government and Florence Nightingale to be allowed to practice in Scutari, she financed her own way to the scene of the Crimean War and established the British Hotel to serve both the comfort and medical needs of the wounded soldiers. Seacole would work with Nightingale as a volunteer nurse. Seacole' would help wounded soldiers on the battlefield during violent wars.

Alfredo Bowman or Dr. Sebi as he was widely known used alkaline plant-based foods to treat various illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, impotency, visual impairment, cancer, and HIV. His clientele included Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Lisa Lopes, and John Travolta among many.

Dr. Ben Carson who was the youngest Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in 1984 at the age of 33. By his retirement, he was a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. One of his major achievements include participating in the first known separation of conjoined twins who were joined at the back of the head.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first black woman in the United States to receive an MD degree in 1864. She received her degree from the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts where she was the institution’s only black graduate. During her career, Crumpler worked with other black doctors caring for formerly enslaved people in the Freedmen’s Bureau in spite of facing sexism and racism. Towards the end of her career, Crumpler wrote "A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts."

Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first black Surgeon General in the United States. A voice for progressive health care, Elders is responsible for reducing the teen pregnancy rate in Arkansas by making birth control readily available and advocating for sex education in public schools, expanding HIV testing, counseling, and breast screenings, and supporting better hospice care.

Cubah Cornwallis is the woman behind Jamaica's first known nursing facility. Despite being born enslaved (or becoming one at a young age), she ultimately bought her freedom and would heal other enslaved people and British soldiers. Her most notable patient was a young King William IV. Many sick individuals would patiently wait until Cornwallis was available instead of receiving care from traditional doctors of that time.

Dr. Charles R. Drew was an American surgeon and medical researcher best known for improving techniques for blood storage and standing up against racism in the medical field at a time where the American Red Cross did not permit black people to make blood donations. Drew's novel techniques for blood preservation ultimately saved the lives of many WWII soldiers as he developed large-scale blood banks that were used in remote battlefields.

Dr. James McCune Smith was an American physicist, pharmacist, essayist, and abolitionist! Born into slavery in New York, Smith became a free man by age 14. Due to racial discrimination at American universities, he took his studies to the University of Glasgow earning his doctorate at the top of his class by 1837 at just 24 years-old. Upon his return to the the United States, he became the first university-trained black doctor, first black person to have articles published in American medical journals, and he worked alongside Fredrick Douglass to establish the National Council of Colored People. Throughout his life he was a staunch supporter of black education and liberation and used his standing to promote equitable education opportunities for the black community.

Dr. Andrea D. Willis currently serves as the Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. Dr. Willis has a long history in public health with a specialty in pediatric care having served in the State of Tennessee as director of CoverKids and helped to develop Tennessee’s federally approved State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Dr. Willis also is a fellow with the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the Tennessee Medical Association.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was an American surgeon known for performing the first pericardium surgery in 1893. During his life, he served as a Professor of Clinical Surgery at Meharry Medical College and he co-founded the National Medical Association for black doctors ending his career with his own medical practice.

Dr. Scott Whitaker, a board certified naturopathic doctor with over 20 years of experience in herbology, iridology, homeopathy, natural healing and detoxification. Having founded Wholistic Health Institute, Inc, Dr. Whitaker lectures on the benefits of holistic solutions all over the world.

Dr. Myra Logan was an American physician, surgeon, and anatomist. After graduating valedictorian as an undergraduate at Atlanta University, she late received degrees from Columbia University and New York Medical College. During her career she made dozens of advancements in health care research, was a published medical journalist, and she was the first woman to perform an open heart surgery (ninth overall)!

Dr. Agnes Yewande Savage was the first West African woman to earn a medical degree at a Western university. Inheriting a love of medicine from her father, Dr. Richard Akinwande Savage Sr., the younger Savage did not let the racial and gender barriers dissuade her from her goals. Throughout her career she won a prize for her research in skin diseases, became the first woman to win a medal in Forensic Medicine, and had a ward named after her at

Korle Bu Nurses Training College.

Dr. Reginald J. Eadie is a trained emergency room medical physician, he currently serves as Trinity Health Of New England's President and CEO. A Detroit, Michigan native he has over 20-years of health care experience, has been honored as Becker's Hospital Review

"100 Physician Leaders to Know," and has received the Michigan Secretary of State's "Shining Star" award.

Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall Jr. was a prestigious American surgeon, oncologist, and professor born in 1930. A Howard University alumni, he achieved many firsts throughout his lifetime including the 1st black president of the American Cancer Society and the American College of Surgeons. Though he passed away in 2019, he is still saving lives through the thousands of students he taught oncology to.

Dr. Sarah Parker Remond was born in 1826 as a free woman to wealthy black business owners and socialites, Sarah's life experience was unlike many black people of that time. Prior to becoming a physician in her early 40's, Remond was a well known activist, lecturer and abolitionist having begun her career at 16. She later moved to Italy earning her MD at the most prestigious school in Italy at the time, Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. She later married and remained in Italy until her death in 1894, having practiced medicine for over 20 years.

Dr. Lillian Holland Harvey was a dynamic doctor, nurse, educator, and civil rights activist, best known for being the Dean of Tuskegee School of Nurses and using that position to train thousands of black nurses for military service and post-military nursing careers.

Dr. Jane C. Wright was a surgeon noted for her contributions in cancer research and chemotherapy. A third generation doctor, Wright was the first female president, black or white, of New York Cancer Society. Her forty-year career included dozens of published researched papers on cancer and chemotherapy and leading a delegation of cancer researchers to Africa, China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. '

Dr. Mae Jemison is best known as the first black woman to travel in space but Dr. Jemison is also a physician, earning her MD from Cornell University and serving as a doctor for the Peace Corps in Liberia and Sierra Leone before working for NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Dr. Patricia Bath was an American ophthalmologist and university professor known for inventing laser cataract surgery. Dr. Bath's invention has spared the eyesight of millions all over the world.

Dr. Regina Marcia Benjamin is an American physician, non-profit clinic founder, U.S. recipient of the Nelson Mandela award, and most notably the 18th Surgeon General of the United States. During her esteemed career, she has opened several free clinics, directed several nonprofits, and has served on the board of several institutions such as Morehouse School of Medicine and Florida A&M University.

Dr. Alexandar Thomas Augusta was a surgeon, veteran of the American Civil War, and the first black professor of medicine in the United States. Despite facing much discrimination in his efforts to become a doctor such as having to attend school in Canada because American schools would not admit him or being refused entrance into the American Medical Association, he prospered becoming the highest ranking officer in the Civil War, establishing a private practice, and teaching Anatomy for Howard University.

Dr. Marilyn Gaston is a trailblazing physician and researcher who paced the way in early Sickle Cell Disease detection. Inspired to become a doctor by her mother's inability to afford treatment for her cervical cancer, Gaston was a staunch advocate of ensuring that all families had equal access to medical care regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller was a Liberian born psychiatrist, researcher, and medical educator. During his time as a student, he studied with Alois Alzheimer (the researcher who coined the term Alzheimer's Disease), taught pathology at Boston University School of Medicine, and had a private practice as a psychiatrist, neurologist, and psychiatrist.

Dr. Edith Irby Jones was an American physician who founded a private practice in Houston's third ward to provide low-income individuals with affordable and accessible health care. During her lifetime she received many awards for her work in medicine including being inducted into the Arkansas Women's Hall of Fame and becoming the first female president of National Medical Association.

Dr. Risa J. Lavizzo-Mourey is an American medical doctor and former CEO of the billion dollar Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Throughout her life she has received many honors such as being one of Forbes' 100 Most Powerful Women several times and The Grio's History Makers in the Making. Currently she is an esteemed professor at one of her alma maters, The University of Pennsylvania.

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