Black History in Medicine: 20 one-minute stories

The impact of Black Americans on the course of medicine cannot be overstated. Though often denied access to the same opportunity, training, and compensation as their white counterparts, these 20 individuals are all united by their devotion to improving the health of their neighbors, their communities, and the world despite the injustice they faced.

James McCune Smith was the first Black American to earn a medical degree. The organization he later founded with Frederick Douglass would become the NAACP.
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The first Black American to earn a medical degree from Carver College of Medicine spent his summers working in a coal mine. After graduation, Dr. Edward Carter returned to that mine to care for those working there.
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Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman in the US to earn a medical degree, used her training to help the nation heal after the Civil War. Her work with women and children led to what some believe was the first medical textbook written by a Black person. Correction: The photograph that begins this video is actually of Mary Eliza Mahoney, profiled in a subsequent video. No verified photograph of Rebecca Crumpler can be located.
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Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston pioneered screening for sickle cell disease in children. She became the first Black woman to direct a federal public health bureau.
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In the 1930s, Leonidas Harris Berry, MD, began offering gastroenterology services in Chicago to Black residents. In addition to producing advancements in scoping technology, Dr. Berry was a strong advocate for bringing health care to underserved populations.
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Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas was a pioneer in vascular and cardiac surgery and a legendary instructor to generations of surgeons. His autobiography was the basis of the film Partners in the Heart.
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Adaora Adimora, MD, MPH, is a leader in HIV research and health equity and the first Black woman to receive tenure in UNC’s Infectious Diseases division. She served four years on the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
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Dr. William Cardozo was one of the first medical researchers to deepen our understanding of sickle cell anemia. He found that it was an inherited disease and that its diagnosis was not necessarily fatal. In addition to his research in sickle cell disease, Dr. Cardozo studied pediatric GI disorders and served on the Washington DC Board of Public Health for 24 years.
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Dr. Omega Logan Silva was the first Black American to be awarded a Clinical Investigatorship in the Department of Veterans Affairs. She held dual appointments as a professor of medicine at both George Washington University and Howard University.
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Dr. William Hinton developed a simpler, cheaper, and more accurate method of diagnosing syphilis in 1927. In a 1952 interview he cited socioeconomic status as “the determining factor” in whether someone contracted the disease.
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Dr. Charles Drew, the “Father of the Blood Bank,” unlocked the secret that separating plasma and red blood cells allowed for its longer storage. An almost immediate impact was felt on the course of World War II.
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Chemist Marie Maynard Daly was the first Black woman to earn a PhD from Columbia University. She made breakthroughs in our understanding of metabolism, cholesterol and heart health.
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In addition to performing the first successful open heart surgery, Daniel Hale Williams founded Chicago’s Provident Hospital, which permitted integrated staff and gave many Black physicians and nurses a place to launch their careers.
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Like many Black physicians, Dr. Helen Dickens got her start in Chicago’s Provident Hospital, but she took her lessons in social determinants of health with her to Philadelphia. Dickens made empowerment of young women the cornerstone of her medical practice.
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In addition to helping advance our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Solomon Fuller trained many Black psychiatrists and helped them establish their practices.
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Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black woman to earn a nursing degree in the United States. Though discrimination forced her into private care, her free time was devoted to removing the barriers she faced.
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Dr. Alexander Augusta helped found two medical societies for Black physicians, became the first Black faculty member at an American medical school, and was the first officer-rank Black soldier to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
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The impact of Dr. Patricia Bath‘s career must be measured beyond just ophthalmology. Her documentation of health care disparities early in her work helped expand research into what is now more commonly referred to as social determinants of health.
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Louis Tompkins Wright was a pioneer not only in infectious diseases but in cancer care as well, founding a research center at Harlem Hospital, where breakthroughs in chemotherapy began.
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Jane Cooke Wright continued the work her father began, particularly in cancer care, uncovering new treatments and helping nationalize a systemic response to the disease.
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