Black Pioneers in Medicine II

Black History Month is here. 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 Two of Black Medicine:

Immunologist Dr. KIZZMEKIA SHANTA CORBETT (b.1986) is one of the leaders who helped develop the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Born in North Carolina, the Meyerhoff Scholar went to University of Maryland Baltimore County for her undergraduate degree in 2008, and she moved back to NC to get her PhD at UNC Chapel Hill in 2014. In between that time, Dr. Corbett worked as a biological sciences trainer for the National Institutes of Health, where she worked on learning the origins of respiratory syncytial virus and new ways to advance vaccine development. As a research fellow and viral immunologist in 2014, her work focused on fighting such coronaviruses as SARS and MERS. When COVID-19 spread, her team partnered with Moderna to develop a vaccine. Thanks to her, clinical trials lasted only 66 days. Today, Dr. Corbett advocates for the vaccine and tries to aussage the Black community’s well-justified apprehension about American medical advancement.

Portrait of Dr. Charles Drew (1904 – 1950), Washington DC, 1946. Drew was a professor and Head of Surgery at Howard University, Chief of Surgery at Freedman’s Hospital, and an authority on preservation of human blood for transfusion. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

CHARLES RICHARD DREW (1904-1950) was an American surgeon who revolutionized research in blood transfusions and storage. He was a scholar and an athlete, as he got into Amherst College because of his track and football prowess, and then he earned money for medical school be spending two years at then-Morgan College, teaching biology and being their first athletics director and head coach. He earned his first doctorate at McGill University of Quebec. His doctoral thesis about “banking” blood and plasma likely saved thousands of lives during WW2, as he was made head of a plasma collection program and head of a fleet of “bloodmobiles”. In 1941 Dr. Drew became the first Black examiner on the American Board of Surgery, and he was appointed director of the American Red Cross. This appointment only lasted a year since he quit, as the organization segregated Black and white donor blood despite no scientific reason for it. In 1950, Dr. Charles Drew died from a bad car accident on his way to an annual conference in Tuskegee, Alabama. There is a myth that he died because he was refused a blood transfusion, but the three black physicians who survived the crash confirmed that there was very little anyone could have done to save him. However, the myth persists, as it was common for Black folks to not be ignored and underserved at hospitals, a practice that persists in more dubious ways today.

ALEXA IRENE CANADY (b. 1950) became the first Black woman neurosurgeon in 1981, but this almost was not to be. She almost dropped out of school during her undergraduate career, but fortunately regained her self-confidence after changing her major form mathematics to medicine and charged forward. She attained her Bachelor of Science in 1971 and graduated from medical school in 1975, both at the University of Michigan. By 1981, Dr. Canady had become a neurosurgeon. During her time at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, her colleagues voted her one of the top residents. Her love of medicine and pediatrics led to a position as chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 to her retirement in 2001. Under her guidance, the department gained national recognition and has consistently been ranked among America’s best pediatric neurosurgery programs in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals list. Over her career, Dr. Canady racked up awards for her work, including the Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School, American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award, “Detroit News” 2002 Michiganer of the Year, and induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. All this, because she switched to a major she loved.

DANIEL HALE WILLIAMS (1858-1931) was a renown cardiologist and the first physician to perform a successful open-heart surgery. After some time working as a cobbler’s apprentice in Baltimore, Dr. Williams decided to pursue his education and graduated with a medical degree from Chicago Medical College. He practiced medicine in Chicago at a time when there were only three other Black physicians in the entire city. Working at a time when Black people were regularly turned away from hospitals and Black doctors were not employed by them, in 1893 Dr. Williams founded Chicago’s Provident Hospital, the first interracial and Black-owned hospital. This was an interracial staff that welcomed all patients during a time of nationwide segregation. Here, he performed the first successful open-heart surgery, a feat done without X-rays, modern surgical tools, or antibiotics. In 1894, he moved to Washington, DC to become chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital. Dr. Williams was also the first black member of the American College of Surgeons and co-founded the National Medical Association with Robert Boyd, MD.

MARY ELIZA MAHONEY (1845-1926) was the first Black woman awarded a registered nursing degree. In her teens, Ms. Mahoney began working in the New England Hospital for Women and Children, a unique hospital that an all-women staff. She worked there for 15 years, working her way up from custodian to cook to washer to nurse’s aide. In 1878, she was admitted into the hospital’s nursing school, an intense 16-month program. Of the 42 people who started, Ms. Mahoney was one of the 4 who graduated. In 1896, she was one of the first black members of the American Nurses Association. Unhappy with the discrimination she endured in the ANA, Ms. Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. In 1911, she spent a year as director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum in Kings Park, Long Island. Though she retired from nursing after 40 years, she stayed active in fighting for women’s and Black people’s rights. Ms. Mahoney was active in the women’s suffrage movement despite white suffragists’ racism. She was among the first women to register to vote in Boston following the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920. Her grave in Everett, MA boasts a monument to her accomplishments, sponsored partially by the ANA.

ROBERT FULTON BOYD (1855-1912) was the co-founder and president of the first professional organization for black physicians, the National Medical Association. Born enslaved in Giles County, Tennessee, he was raised on a farm the first 11 years of his life, but in 1866 his mother took him to Nashville to live with acclaimed surgeon Paul Eve. This is when Dr. Boyd was inspired to become a physician, and he eventually enrolled in night classes at Fisk University. In 1875 Dr. Boyd started teaching at College Grove in Williamson County. A year later, he returned to his hometown Giles County and became principal at Pulaski’s public schools. In 1880, Dr. Boyd went to Central Tennessee College for medical school and graduated with honors 2 years later. After practicing medicine and teaching for a few years, Dr. Boyd went back to school for dentistry and graduated again with honors in 1886. A year later, he opened a practice to treat poor and less fortunate patients. He would tour and give lectures and teachings about how to combat tuberculosis in the Black community. Dr. Boyd moved to Chicago in 1890 to pursue a degree from University of Chicago’s Post Graduate School of Medicine. Three years later, he became a professor of gynecology and clinical medicine. Despite all his accomplishments, the American Medical Association would not admit Dr. Boyd, due to racial exclusivity and segregation laws. Black physicians frustrated by professional disenfranchisement created the NMA to serve the black medical community. Dr. Boyd was appointed the group’s first president in 1895.

Anarcha, Lucy, Betsy, and 7 more women are the true mothers of gynecology, though they have no dedications to them, and they did not ask for this “honor”. Dr. James Marion Sims is considered the father of gynecology, as in 1845 he was inspired to blaze the trail for a new field of women’s health care when he faced the task of repairing a tear in Anarcha after a complicated, painful childbirth. He performed thirty surgeries on her over the course of 3 years, none with any form of anesthesia. Anarcha was just the first of Sims’s enslaved patients. Over the years, he inflicted excruciating experiments on 10 enslaved women, but we only know three of their names, as Sims and his colleagues felt no need to afford his patients that basic human dignity. Already a physician for white women, he had the ability to give painkillers and anesthesia to the women upon whom he inflicted pain for the advancement of medicine, but since the women were only considered property at best, he felt no need. For the torture he inflicted, Sims was honored with statues. Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy finally got recognition, as one of Sims’s statues was replaced with a plaque acknowledging them. Sadly the 7 other unnamed women will not be known to history.

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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