Black Pioneers in Medicine III

Black History Month is every month for me. The last twelve months have been tumultuous. A global pandemic has kept most of us indoors to our own devices, which usually is never a good prospect, “idle hands” and all. When things looked the bleakest, multiple vaccines were developed, and distribution is steady. The medical industry can accomplish great feats when it works for the people, but unfortunately those feats can be at the cost of the most vulnerable, namely Black and Brown people. The irony of this is that the practice of medicine started in Africa, and what we see in today’s medical world can trace its roots back to Imhotep, who had been practicing medicine 2000 years before even Hippocrates, the supposed “father of medicine.” This month we highlight Black folks from around the world who innovated, achieved, and surpassed all expectations in the field of health and wellness. We’ll also see a few ways the medical field betrayed our trust, and perhaps make clear why so many people of color are wary of Western medicine, despite our ancestors’ hands in making it. Here is Week Three of Black Medicine:

Nigerian born Dr. ONYEMA OGBUAGU is a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist. Throughout his 18-year career, he worked in struggling communities in Nigeria, Rwanda, Liberia, and the United States, treating patients and giving them best care he can give despite socioeconomic obstacles. He also trained physicians in those communities how to treat people in areas where resources might be scarce. Most recently, he led the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trials at Yale University. Fully aware that there would be a deeper skepticism about the vaccine in the Black community, even though the disease has hit the Black and Brown community the hardest, he was emphatic that the participants in the trials did not exclude volunteers of color, and though the Pfizer only had 10% Black participants out of the 44,000 volunteers, it is still more than most trials. Dr. Ogbuagu continues his work in infectious diseases and hopes to diminish the mistrust of the work he did on the COVID vaccine.

PATRICIA ERA BATH (1942-2019) was an ophthalmologist and inventor. She received her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in 1968. After an internship at Harlem Hospital, she completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970. In 1970, she was the first African American to serve an ophthalmology residency at New York University. Her career took her to Los Angeles, where she became the first woman ophthalmologist at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, and in 1983 she became the first woman chief of UCLA’s Ophthalmology Residency program, also the first woman in the US to head an ophthalmology residency program. During her career, Dr. Bath focused on causes of sight loss and glaucoma in African American people, as they are eight times more likely to suffer from the afflictions. Her work led to invention of a method using lasers to move cataracts, also making her the first black woman to receive a medical patent. After Dr. Bath retired, she continued to invent and become an advocate for telemedicine, racking up 4 more medical patents and pushing for the method by which we likely “Visited” our doctors in the past year.

JAMES McCUNE SMITH (1813-1865) was born in New York to a mother who purchased her own freedom. His activism started at age 11, when retired General Lafayette asked him to write and deliver a welcome address for him during his visit to New York’s African Free School, which Dr. Smith also attended. Upon graduation, he was unable to gain acceptance in any college, so he earned money to move to Scotland, where he earned his Bachelors, Masters, and finally his medical degree at the University of Glasgow. This made him the first African American to be awarded a degree in medicine, in 1837. He returned to the U.S. to and practice medicine, and he also was the first black physician to establish and run a pharmacy. He used his training in medicine and statistics to refute common misconceptions about race, intelligence, medicine and society in general. Beyond this, he was an avid abolitionist and writer. Dr. Smith stayed active until his death in 1865, 5 months after the end of the Civil War, and 2 weeks before the ratification of the 13th Amendment. He is commemorated in both America and Scotland for his accomplishments.

ROSELYN ELIZABETH PAYNE EPPS (1930-2014) wanted to be a pediatrician since she was 10 years old. This would be a lofty goal to attend for anyone, but for a little girl born in Little Rock, AK and raised in Savannah, GA in the 1930s and 1940s, this might be dismissed as a pipe dream. Regardless, Dr. Epps attained her Bachelor and Medical degree from Howard University in 1955, and the following year, she began her pediatric residency in Howard University Hospital, and two years later she became the chief resident. From 1961 to 1971, Dr. Epps as a medical officer for the DC Department of Health left to pursue her Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, which she attained in 1973. In 1974, Dr. Epps became the first African American president of her local chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association, and in 1988, she was the first Black person and first woman to become president of the DC chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Three years later, Dr. Epps was elected the first African American president of the American Medical Women’s Association, and in 1992, she was the first Black woman president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia. Throughout her career, Dr. Epps published over 90 professional articles, 16 of which were used as chapters of educational books. She also coedited “The Women’s Complete Healthbook: and “Developing a Child Care Program”. Washington, DC has designated February 14th as “Dr. Roselyn P. Epps Day” for all her contributions to society.

After 100 years of local chapters disallowing Black members, up until 1968, the American Medical Association elected its first Black president, Dr. LONNIE ROBERT BRISTOW (b. 1930), on June 21st, 1995. Plenty of Black doctors before him were likely more than qualified to merely join the 300,000 member organization, and Dr. Bristow’s own accomplishments made him as long overdue for leadership roles as his predecessors. The Harlem native started his undergraduate education at the age of 16 at Morehouse College in 1947, took a break to join the Navy, finished his degree at City College of New York in 1953, and finally earned his medical degree at New York University in 1957. Dr. Bristow then practiced as an internist in San Pablo, CA for more than 30 years, dedicating his career to treating sickle cell anemia, coronary care, HIV/AIDS and staying vocal about the socioeconomic issues that impact healthcare. Dr. Bristow joined the AMA in 1970. In 1994, its Board of Regents elected Dr. Bristow president for the 1995-1996 term. Under his leadership, the organization focused heavily on the issue of ethics in the medical community, including implementing ethics courses and questions about ethics on medical licensing exams. He also worked to encourage HIV/AIDS education at home and abroad. Today, Dr. Bristow continues to work as a consultant in the healthcare field.

UNITED STATES – APRIL 07: Del. Donna Christian-Christensen, D-Virgin Islands, at a press conference on the CBC “Health Braintrust – Strategizing for the Future – Budgets, Policies, and Politics: The Instruments of a Health Disparities Elimination Movement, (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)

DONNA CHRISTIAN-CHRISTENSEN (b. 1945) is the first woman physician, to be elected to US Congress. The Teaneck, NJ native is the daughter of US Virgin Islands Federal District Court Judge Almeric Christian. Dr. Christian-Chirstensen earned her medical degree from George Washington University School of Medicine in 1970, and after an internship in San Francisco and a residency in family medicine at Howard University Medical Center, she moved to St. Croix in 1975 to become an emergency room physician. Between 1987 and 1988 she was medical director of the St. Croix Hospital and from 1988 to 1994 she was Commissioner of Health for the Virgin Islands. During the entire period from 1977 to 1996 Christensen maintained a private practice in family medicine.  From 1992 to 1996 she was also a television journalist. In 1996, Dr. Christian-Christensen ran for and was elected to represent the US Virgin Islands in the US House of Representative as a non-voting delegate. Despite the non-voting status of US territories, she still made an impact, as throughout her 9 terms as delegate, she joined the Committee on Natural Resources, Homeland Security Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus, the Congressional Rural Caucus, the Friends of the Caribbean Caucus, the Coastal Caucus, and the Congressional National Guard and Reserve Caucus. She also chaired the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs. Dr. Christian-Christensen finished her US House career in 2015 to run for governor of USVI. Though unsuccessful in her gubernatorial campaign, she still is committed to staying active in the Territory.

The American medical industry has ignored and gaslit the health of Black Americans, all while sometimes using them for experimentation, as in the Tuskegee Experiment. At the same time, practitioners used junk science and easily refutable falsehood to justify this mistreatment. One such example is the faux conditions of DRAPETOMANIA. Literally translating to “runaway slave madness” in Greek, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright wrote about it in his published paper, “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. In it he explained that an enslaved person who runs away is suffering from a psychological illness that makes them flee. In the same paper, he described another “disorder” called Dysaethesia Aethiopica, a condition in which an enslaved person loses their work ethic and become disobedient or refuse to work. He also said that the “maladies” could come about if a master treats his enslaved people too familiarly, treating them kindly, giving them clothes, and keeping them well fed. Both conditions, he said, can be cured by “beating the devil out of them”, even amputating appendages if need be. It couldn’t be that human beings never had a desire to be enslaved and would rather risk their lives to be free than endure the torture of mental and physical shackles. Nevertheless, Wright’s paper became popular and was scene as sound scientific advice as to how slaveowners should treat the people they enslaved. This is just one instance of a doctor doing massive harm to Black folks under the guise of science.

About Chris Thompson

(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com

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