Black Pioneers in Medicine IV

This is the final week of my Black Pioneers in Medicine series. I hope you notice that a lot of these pioneers are still alive, and they are making history in the 21st and 20th Centuries. Also, notice how many more degrees many of them attained, just to be recognized as experts in their fields. They are only the tip of the iceberg, though. Black people contributed to medicine and health since before the concepts of “Black” and “White” existed, and despite the obstacles put in their way, they will continue to do so.

MARILYN HUGHES GASTON (b. 1939) wanted to be a doctor from 9 years old, but was discouraged from pursuing her interest as she was Black and a girl. Nevertheless, she studied zoology for her undergraduate degree and then earned her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 1964. She is credited for her groundbreaking research in sickle cell anemia during her internship at Philadelphia General hospital. She secured federal grants to study SCD in children and established protocols for routine screening for the disease. In 1976 she initiated a long association with the National Institutes for Health as a medical expert, and later, as deputy branch chief of the Sickle Cell Disease Branch. Dr. Gaston’s work helped detect and ease the complications of Sickle Cell Disease, including avoiding some of the effects with early treatment, a life-saving practice that became a central policy of the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1990, Dr. Gaston became the first African American woman director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, where she focused on improving health care services for poor and underserved families. She controlled a budget of $5 billion serving 12 million patients. She received a lifetime achievement award from the National Medical association in 1999, and when she retired in 2001, her staff presented her with newly received data from prophylactic penicillin programs recently carried out in Africa, underscoring the worldwide impact of her work. Both Cincinnati and Lincoln Heights, OH have a Marilyn Gaston Day dedicated to her.

JOSÉ CELSO BARBOSA ALCALÁ (1857-1921) was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico to a bricklayer and a sugar mill overseer. In his youth, Dr. Barbosa was the first person of African ancestry to graduate from Seminario Conciliar de San Ildefonso, a Jesuit seminary, in 1875. From there, he moved to New York to attend Fort Edward Collegiate Institute with aspirations to become a lawyer, but a bout of pneumonia inspired a change of course to become a doctor. He earned a medical degree at University of Michigan in 1880, their first Afro-PR student. He then returned to Puerto Rico and built a practice serving the poor and Black communities of the land. When the Spanish-American War broke out, Dr. Barbosa traveled to the capital San Juan to treat wounded Puerto Rican and Spanish soldiers. His work earned him a recommendation for the Cruz de la Orden del Mérito Naval (The Cross of the Order of Naval Merit) form the Spanish government. When the US claimed Puerto Rico as a US territory, Dr. Barbosa formed the pro-statehood Partido Republicano de Puerto Rico and was known as the father of the statehood for Puerto Rico movement. In later years, Dr. Barbosa participated heavily in Puerto Rico’s government, from being appointed by William McKinley to an Executive Cabinet to holding a seat in the first Puerto Rican Senate. He also published the island’s first bilingual paper, El Tiempo. Much of Dr. Barbosa’s thoughts and work was inspired by Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, and A. Philip Randolph. Of his 11 children, one became a dentist, another a surgeon, and another Puerto Rico’s official historian.

RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY (b. 1954) made history in the 21st Century when she became the first Black woman president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of America’s largest philanthropic organizations devoted to public health and healthcare. Her tenure at this post lasted from 2003 to 2017. Before her time at RWJF, the Seattle native earned her medical degree at Harvard University, and she was named an RWJF Clinical Scholar at university of Pennsylvania, where she earned her Master of Business Administration at the UPenn’s Wharton School in 1986. She is also a former regent of the American College of Physicians, where she led committees on medical ethics and human rights. Dr. Lavizzo-Morey also served as director of the Institute of Aging at University of Pennsylvania, chief of staff for geriatrics for the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center, and Sylvan Eisman Professor of Medicine and Health Care Systems. Dr. Lavizzo-Morey also served in the US Department of Health and Human Services as deputy administrator Agency for Helthcare Research and Quality, and was on a White House task force for Health Care reform. She joined RWJF in 2001 as a senior vice president and two years later was made CEO and president of the organization. While still at RWJF, she served or presided over several federal advisory committees, including the Task Force on Aging and the the Institute of Medicine’s Panel on Disease and Disability Prevention Among Older Adults, and the National Committee for Vital and Health Statistics (where she chaired the Subcommittee on Minority Populations). She was a member of President Barack Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition to take on the childhood obesity epidemic. In 2014, Lavizzo-Mourey was appointed a member of the Smithsonian’s board of regents. She recently completed service as co-vice chair of a congressionally requested Institute of Medicine study on racial disparities in health care.

SOLOMON CARTER FULLER (1872-1953) was a Liberian and African American pioneer psychiatrist, pathologist, physician, and professor. He was born in Monrovia, Liberia to a coffee planter father and a mother whose parents were physicians and medical missionaries. As he came of age, Dr. Fuller traveled to the United States to pursue his medical career, studying at Livingstone College in 1893, and then in Long Island Medical School. He completed his medical degree at 1897 at Boston University School of Medicine, becoming the first African American psychiatrist recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. His post-graduate work had him travel to Germany, where he attended the University of Munich, researching in the school’s psychiatric clinic. In 1903, Dr. Fuller was one of five student physicians chosen by Alois Alzheimer (yes THAT Alzheimer) to research at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital. This propelled him to pioneer and advance the study of many other neurodegenerative diseases, including schizophrenia and manic depression. After Germany, Dr. Fuller returned to teach and continue research at Boston University. He eventually became an emeritus professor of neurology at the University. Its mental health program at the university bears Dr. Fuller’s name today in honor of his contributions to psychiatric research.

JANE HINTON (1919-2003) was a bacteriologist and one of the first two African American women to attain doctorates in veterinary medicine. Dr. Hinton was the daughter of William Augustus Hinton, a pathologist/bacteriologist and first African American textbook author and first African American professor at Harvard University. She studied at Simmons College in Boston, and later enrolled in her father’s Medical Laboratory Techniques course, as his was open to women, a rarity in the 1930s. Dr. Hinton then worked in Harvard’s research laboratories, where she worked with John Howard Mueller to develop the Mueller-Hinton Agar, a culture medium used to isolate the Neisseria bacteria that causes meningitis and gonorrhea. The Mueller-Hinton Agar was also used to detect whether antibiotics were effective against certain bacteria. The Clinical Laboratory and Standards Institute, an international laboratory standards body, heralded the Mueller-Hinton agar as the gold standard for antibiotic testing. From 1942 to 1945, Dr. Hinton worked as a laboratory technician for the US War department. After the War, she enrolled in The University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary medicine program, and she attained her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (VMD) degree in 1949, the same year that Alfreda Johnson Web earned her VMD at Tuskegee University. Dr. Hinton then worked as a veterinarian in Massachusetts and then an federal government inspector for the Department of Agriculture, researching livestock disease outbreaks. She retired in 1960 at the age of 41 and spent the rest of her life happily single, gardening, and taking care of her pets.

JAMES AFRICANUS BEALE HORTON (1835–1883), was a Krio African nationalist writer and an esteemed medical surgeon in the British Army from Freetown, Sierra Leone.At age 12, he attended a missionary school with intent to become a minister. Dr. Norton continued this path until 1855, when he was essentially drafted to study medicine so that he could become a medical officer in the British Royal Army. He ended up attending Kings College in London and then earned his medical degree at Edinburgh University. In 1859, Horton was commissioned back to West Africa where he served the Army as a staff-assistant surgeon, and eventually surgeon-major. His service also affected his political views, as he served in two Ashanti wars, and he traveled all around the western coast under service of the British. Britain’s imperialist goals and negative view of African peoples made Dr. Horton determined to prove that Africans are on par with Europeans intellectually and mentally. He wrote a number of books and essays pushing for independence from European rule, a century before this type of rhetoric would take hold. His most widely remembered book is his 1868 Vindication of the African Race, an answer to the white racist authors and theories emerging in Europe. Upon his retirement from the army, he continued to write, advocating for education, unity among the African tribes, and independence from European rule. He was a century ahead of his time. His writings look ahead to African self-government, anticipating many events of the 1950s and 1960s, and Horton is often seen as one of the founders of African nationalism and has been called “the father of modern African political thought”. Dr. Horton also opened the Commercial Bank of West Africa and became wealthy by investing in gold mining, an effort to become economically independent.

EUGENICS is the pseudo-science of “improving” the human race by “breeding” humans for their desirable traits and “breeding out” those with a genetic disorder or physical or mental disability. British scholar Francis Galton coined the term in 1883, but the idea goes all the way back to Plato, who posited in The Republic that a better society could exist if “high-class” people procreated, and people of lower stations were discouraged from multiplying. Before the practice had a name, enslaved Africans in America were often forced to couple to bring about “better slaves”. Black women were often called “breed sows”, and Black men were called “bucks”. Though record of this type of coupling is documented, the trauma of forcing two people to mate as though they were animals is not. Galton’s writings caught fire in late 19th Century America, where many popular figures saw it as a way to a better society. Anti-miscegenation laws were passed. If sent to prison or simply to the hospital, Black and Brown citizens were sterilized, often without their knowledge. John Harvey Kellogg (of the cereal fame) established a “pedigree registry” and hosted eugenics conferences. Most disturbingly, the American eugenics movement served as the blueprint for Adolf Hitler’s plan to “purify” the “Aryan” race by eliminated those he thought were not worthy. Eugenics on the whole, and prior iterations of it, had the goal of making the world whiter and eliminating and dehumanizing everyone else. It was a new version of the faulty “race science” that created the concept of race that has permeated in society since the 1500s.

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

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