Pioneer’s In Black Medicine I

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 One of Black Medicine:

ONESIMUS (1600s-1700s), was the West African man who introduced vaccination to the American colonies. His birth name is unknown, when he was enslaved and “given” to the minister Cotton Mather (of Salem Witch Trial fame), he was given the name of the Byzantine Saint Onesimus, whose name means “useful.” In 1721, Massachusetts suffered from a smallpox epidemic, where half of Boston’s 11,000 population suffered. Onesimus was likely a healer before his captivity, as he described to Mather the practice of “variolation,” where one takes a small piece of infectious material from a sick patient and injects it into a healthy patient to bolster their immunity to the disease. Variolation was practiced for years around Africa and Asia, but it was new to the Colonies. Though not 100% effective, 1 in 40 people died from this treatment, as opposed to 1 in 7 who contracted smallpox naturally. Onesimus’s treatment likely saved thousands of Bostonians. He would eventually earn partial freedom from his enslaver. However, Cotton Mather would gain most of the credit for bringing inoculation to the New World.

Dr. REBECCA DAVIS LEE CRUMPLER  (1831-1895) was the first Black woman awarded a medical degree in the U.S., and one of the first woman physician authors of the 19th century. Dr. Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware and raised in Pennsylvania, heavily influenced by her aunt, who acted as the community healer. Dr. Crumpler moved to Charlestown, MA in 1852 to become a nurse. She then enrolled in New England Female Medical College in Boston in 1860, the only African American woman in the school. Upon graduation, Dr. Crumpler focused on treating Black women and children in New England. After the Civil War, she briefly moved to Virginia to treat newly freed people, and she worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, finding patients who white physicians refused to treat. In the 1870s, she attended the West Newton English and Classical School to study mathematics and started teaching as well. She published “Book of Medical Discourses” in 1883, which drew information from her clinical experiences to help women better care for the health of their families. Her home on Joy Street in Boston is a stop on Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Congolese microbiologist Dr. JEAN-JACQUES MUYEMBE (b. 1942) is the general director of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Institut National pour la Recherche Biomedicale (INRB). He also discovered EBOLA in 1976, though he is just getting credit for that now. His research started shortly after he received his Ph.D. from Belgium’s Rega Institute in 1973. He returned to then-Zaire as he was concerned for the health of his homeland. Dr. Muyembe took blood samples form someone suffering yellow fever-like symptoms and sent them to Antwerp, as there were not adequate testing facilities in 1970s Congo. It was Beligan doctor Peter Piot until now was credited with “discovering” Ebola, a disease named after the Congolese village and river. All Piot really did was run tests on the blood samples that Dr. Muyembe could easily have done had he had the local facilities. Piot even admits that he was partially responsible for writing Muyembe out of history. Most recently, Dr. Muyembe led the research to the most successful treatment of Ebola, saving 70% of patients. This time, credit is being paid to the right person.

Dr. MINNIE JOYCELYN ELDERS (b. 1933) became the first Black person to be appointed US surgeon general. Dr. Elders was born in 1933 to impoverished farmers and grew up in a segregated pocket of Arkansas. After a stint in the US Army from 1953 to 1956, she earned her medical degree from the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock in 1960. After her residency, Dr. Elders became chief resident responsible for a team of all-white, all-male residents and interns. In 1987, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Elders director of the Arkansas Department. When Clinton became President, he appointed Dr. Elders U.S. surgeon general in 1993. She had to resign her position after 15 months though, as her approaches to drug treatment and sex education was considered too controversial, as she suggested decriminalizing/legalizing most drugs and detailed scientific discussion of sex, prophylactics distribution, and masturbation for adolescents as a way to curb teen pregnancy and spread of venereal disease. Though she was demonized at the time, many of her suggestions have yielded positive results when implemented.

Dr. ALEXANDER THOMAS AUGUSTA (1825-1890) was the first Black physician appointed director of a U.S. hospital. Before this feat, Dr. Augusta earned his degree at Trinity Medical College in Toronto, Canada, and established a successful medical practice in Canada before relocating to the U.S. in 1862. He was drafted to serve in the Civil War, becoming the highest ranking Black commissioned officer and the first black surgeon in the U.S. Army. He later became the first black physician to direct a U.S. hospital, Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C. After that, Dr. Augusta continued in private practice and became a professor at Howard University Medical Department in Washington D.C. Also, his moustache game was on point throughout his career.

Dr. HELEN OCTAVIA DICKENS (1909-2001), at age 23, was the only Black woman in her graduating class at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1934. She received help registering for college from Dr. Elizabeth Hill, the first Black physician to graduate from the school. Dr. Dickens interned at Provident Hospital in Chicago, where she treated tuberculosis patients in impoverished communities. Dr. Dickens was also the first Black woman to receive board certification in obstetrics and gynecology, in 1945. In 1950, she became the first Black woman admitted as a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. She served as director of the obstetrics department at Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Collingdale, PA, where she worked to encourage women to empower themselves in health and came up with comprehensive strategies to lower teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs. Her daughter, Dr. Jayne Henderson Brown, followed in her footsteps of becoming a medical doctor and still practices in Philadelphia.

There are many misconceptions about what the TUSKEGEE EXPERIMENT (1932-1972) was, but the truth is just as bad. Many thought that the Experiment entailed giving Black men syphilis when they thought they were being treated for “bad blood”. In fact, The US Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initiated a study in 1932 in which they studied the effects of untreated syphilis in African-American men. The researchers, lied to the men and told them they they were receiving free health care. Of the 600 men in the study, 399 of them had syphilis but were never informed of their diagnosis, and all “treatments” they were given were ineffective placebos, even when by 1947 penicillin was readily available. The study was supposed to only last 6 months, but ended up going on for 40 years. It was only ended in 1972, after someone leaked the details of the experiment to the press. 128 men died, thinking they were getting free health care. Though there was a class action settlement that awarded the surviving victims an amount of money, none of the researchers received punishment or license revocation for their actions.

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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