The contributions made by African and Black American medical professionals to health and wellness are many. While determining just how many lives these trailblazers saved is impossible, we know that without their imagination, knowledge, and desire to help others many lives would have been lost. Since it is Black History Month, now is the perfect time to recognize and celebrate some of the numerous contributions the Black community has afforded the medical industry and the world overall.
Around 1716 – Onesimus
Onesimus is an African slave who, in 1706, is gifted to Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister. Mather recognizes that Onesimus is exceptional and considers him an individual with intelligence. As such, Mather begins instructing Onesimus, teaching him how to read and how to write, thus ensuring that Onesimus represents the Mather household well.
Around 1716, Mather asks if Onesimus ever had smallpox. He answers yes, and no. Onesimus speaks of a process called variolation practiced in his homeland. Variolation involves taking the pus from one of an infected person’s smallpox blisters and rubbing it into an open wound on the arm of someone who is free of the disease. Onesimus states that anyone who is brave enough to participate in the variolation process will never have the disease.
Onesimus is credited with bringing the African inoculation technique to the United States.
At some point in 1721, smallpox breaks out in Boston. Mather expresses his desire to use the variolation method to inoculate healthy individuals, but is met with resistance. Nonetheless, during the American Revolutionary War, Onesimus’ variolation technique is used to inoculate the soldiers.
The technique remains the standard smallpox inoculation process until 1796, when the process is replaced with the “vaccination” method created in England by Edward Jenner that uses a less infectious organism.
1783 – James Durham
Durham is born in 1762 in Philadelphia. Although born into slavery, Durham, just before turning 21, buys his freedom from his owner, James Kearsley Jr., a medical doctor.
Durham does not hold a medical degree, but gains knowledge about issues related to health and wellness from Kearsley, who specializes in sore throat diseases.
During his time with Kearsley, Durham learns how to care for patients and mix medicines. His experience as an assistant gives him the same medical apprenticeship that the majority of the 3,500 schooled physicians experience as they move through their medical training programs.
Durham dreams of having his own medical practice, and brings this dream to fruition in New Orleans, thus affording him the title of the first doctor of African descent in the United States.
In 1788, Dr. Benjamin Rush invites Durham to Philadelphia. Rush is interested in the success Durham is having with the treatment of diphtheria. At this time, Rush is considered one of the top physicians in America. In addition, Rush is one of the men who signed the United States Declaration of Independence.
Rush is very impressed with Durham’s diphtheria paper. In fact, he is so impressed that he personally reads it before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
In 1789, Durham returns to New Orleans in order to treat more of the people suffering with yellow fever. During this epidemic, although thousands of people die, Durham treats and saves more yellow fever victims than any other physician. His success rate is impressive: of 64 patients he treated, only 11 were lost.
Durham’s medical practice flourishes until the city of New Orleans decides to restrict his practice in 1801 because he has no formal medical degree.
1911 – Solomon Carter Fuller, MD
In 1897, Fuller receives his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine and starts an internship at what was then called “Westborough Insane Hospital.”
From 1904 to 1905 Fuller studies at New York’s Carnegie Laboratory and travels to Germany to study at the University of Munich.
In 1904, Alois Alzheimer chooses five of the students at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital, University of Munich, who are visiting from foreign countries to serve as his assistants while he performs his graduate research. One of these assistants is Fuller.
In 1906, upon leaving Germany, Fuller continues his research into degenerative brain disorders.
In 1911, Fuller identifies one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and publishes his findings. He is widely published and considered a pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease research.
In 1912, the American Psychiatric Association awards Solomon Carter Fuller, MD, the title of America’s First Black Psychiatrist.
Fuller publishes the initial comprehensive clinical review of Alzheimer’s cases that had been reported at that time. In addition, Fuller translates much of Alois Alzheimer’s work into English.
In 1921, Fuller is named Boston University School of Medicine’s associate professor of neurology, and from 1928 to 1933 he functions as chair of the neurology department, but is never officially named department chair. He retires from BU in 1933.
In 1943, Livingstone College of Rutgers University in New Jersey awards Fuller an honorary degree: Doctor of Science.
Besides pioneering Alzheimer’s research, Fuller also advances the study of numerous other neurodegenerative diseases, including manic depression and schizophrenia.
In 1969, the American Psychiatric Association establishes the Solomon Carter Fuller Award, which honors a Black citizen who has pioneered in an area that has brought significant improvement to the quality of life experienced by Black people. Additionally, in order to honor the contributions Fuller made to psychiatric research, one of Boston University’s buildings bears his name: The Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Building.
1915 – Ernest E. Just, PhD
Biologist and embryologist, Just receives the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Spingarn Medal for his ground-breaking research on the egg fertilization process and cell division.
1927 – William Augustus Hinton, MD
William Augustus Hinton creates a test to diagnose syphilis. Initially, the test is referred to as the Hinton test, but when he improves the test in 1931 with a colleague, J.A.V. Davies, Hinton changes the name to the Davies-Hinton test.
In 1936, Hinton’s medical textbook, Syphilis And Its Treatment, becomes the first African American medical textbook ever published.
1940 – Charles R. Drew, ScD (“Father of Blood Banking”)
In 1940, Drew visits New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center to present his thesis, “Banked Blood,” which represents two years of his research into blood, including his discovery that whole blood transfusions can be replaced with plasma.
He pioneered storage methods for blood plasma, and during WWII, organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States.
Once the war ended, he started work on a storage program for the blood at the American Red Cross. After learning that the officials planned to segregate the blood according to ethnicity, however, Drew resigned. Nonetheless, he went on to become the chief surgeon at Washington, D.C.’s Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), as well as the first Black examiner for the American Board of Surgery.
1964 – Jane Wright, MD
Wright is an accomplished surgeon and revolutionary cancer researcher. Her work elevates chemotherapy from a last-ditch effort for the treatment of cancer to a feasible therapy option.
While working with a team at New York University School of Medicine, Wright develops a way to deliver heavy doses of anticancer medications to tumors located within the spleen, kidneys, and other hard-to-reach places. In 1967, she serves as the head and associate dean of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department at New York Medical College in New York City.
1986 – Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD
In 1964, as Gaston works as an intern at Philadelphia General Hospital, an infant with an infected, swollen hand is admitted. Once Gaston learns that the infant has sickle cell disease, she commits herself to learning more about it, eventually becoming a top researcher for this disease.
Gaston becomes the deputy branch chief of the National Institutes of Health’s Sickle Cell Disease Branch. Her research shows the effectiveness of the antibiotic penicillin to prevent sepsis infection (which can be fatal for children with sickle cell disease) and the benefits of screening newborns for the disease.
Due to her extensive career, Gaston receives every Public Health Service award available.
1987 – Benjamin S. Carson Sr., MD, Neurosurgeon
In 1987, Carson is a neurosurgeon leading a 70-member surgical team separating a set of Siamese twins who are conjoined at the cranium. The separation is successful, which makes Carson the only neurosurgeon to successfully separate twins who are joined at the back of the head.
In 2016, Carson runs unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination; but after the election, President Trump nominates him to serve as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; the appointment is confirmed on March 2, 2017, and he serves through the entire Trump presidency.
1988 – Patricia Era Bath, MD
In 1988, Bath is the first Black female physician to receive a patent for a medical device.
As an ophthalmologist, Bath noticed that there were differences in the number of Black patients and white patients experiencing visual impairments and blindness. She decides to conduct a study to determine the prevalence of visual impairment and blindness based on race, and finds that the prevalence of blindness is two times higher in African Americans than in Caucasian Americans.
Bath’s technique and device, the Laserphaco Probe, are used during cataract surgery.
Bath states that eyesight is a basic human right, and in 1976 founds the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.
2007 – Emmett Chappelle
Chappelle, a WWII veteran, is a NASA inventor and a biochemist. He holds 14 patents in the United States. In 2007, he is inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his bioluminescence work. His research makes it possible to detect bacteria more accurately in water.
From vaccines to blood banking to innovative and much-needed medical devices, African Americans have a rich history to explore. So, to celebrate Black History Month this year, take some time to learn more about these amazing individuals.
Kenneth Crosby, MD, is a breast imaging radiologist at Raleigh Radiology in North Carolina.