Honoring Black Pioneers in Medicine

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on July 18, 2019.


There have been countless Black pioneers in the medical profession, but few of us know their names or the contributions they made. This column acknowledges the impact they have had on healthcare despite the inequalities they faced in pursuing their vocations.

In 1837, James McCune Smith graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He was the first African American to earn a medical degree. He was denied access to an American medical school, so he was forced to seek his medical career in a different country. According to The University of Glasgow Story website, Dr. Smith was a noted abolitionist, educator, scholar, and “one of the foremost intellectuals in 19th century America of any race.” Besides graduating at the top of his class, Dr. Smith was also the first Black to run a pharmacy in the United States.

A decade later (in 1847), David Jones Peck became the first African American student to graduate from a medical school in the United States. He received his degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to receive a degree from a medical school in America. That was in 1863.

Vivien Thomas, the grandson of a slave, worked as a laboratory assistant rather than as a doctor. Yet, in the 1940s, he created a surgical technique to correct the congenital heart malformation that causes blue baby syndrome. His white associate, Dr. Alfred Blalock, received the credit.

Charles R. Drew established large-scale blood banks at the beginning of World War II and saved thousands of lives. He also created bloodmobiles.

Alexander Augusta was the first Black to be commissioned as a medical officer in the Union army during the Civil War, and he was the “surgeon in charge” (in other words, the director) of the Contraband Hospital in Washington, DC.

Biddy Mason was a former slave not formally trained in medicine, but she helped deliver hundreds of babies as a midwife in Los Angeles in the 1860’s. Mason was also an entrepreneur and philanthropist who donated generously to charity and helped establish the first black church in the city

In 1895, Robert Boyd co-founded the National Medical Association. This is the oldest and largest organization representing Black physicians and healthcare professionals in the United States. Dr. Boyd served as its first president. The organization is now more than a century old.

William Hinton, who received his medical degree from Harvard in 1912, was the first Black physician to teach at Harvard Medical School. He developed the Hinton test to diagnose syphilis and wrote Syphilis and Its Treatment, the first medical textbook published by a Black physician.

In 1879, Mary Mahoney was the first Black woman to be awarded a nursing degree. She is also credited as one of the first women in Boston to vote after the 19th Amendment was ratified.

Daniel Williams was one of the first physicians to perform a successful open-heart surgery. In 1893, he opened Provident Hospital, the first interracial and Black-owned hospital.

The world of doctors who specialize in pain management is small, because it is a relatively new specialty. That means only a limited number of physicians have been part of treating patients with pain in the modern era. Richard Payne was among those pain specialists.

In 2006, Payne was Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Divinity at Duke University Divinity School and held the John B. Francis Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics. An internationally recognized expert in palliative care, Dr. Payne devoted his career to making quality palliative care standard practice for people with late-stage illness. He was the first African American to become president of the American Pain Society.

In 2019, Patrice Harris became the first African-American woman to be elected president of the American Medical Association. Dr. Harris has been chair of the AMA’s Opioid Task Force since its inception in 2014.

You may have heard some of these names before; others, you may be hearing for the first time. In any case, these men and women saved the lives of thousands of Americans and their allies in a time when racial discrimination was a legal, acceptable part of U.S. culture.

Skin Color Still Matters

We may tell ourselves that skin color no longer matters.

We may take for granted the fact that the Black pioneers in healthcare laid the foundation for positive change and a boundless future for people of all races who are able and willing to make their own contributions to the medical world. But recent history does not support that perspective.

In 2017, a white woman walked into a clinic in Ontario and demanded that a white doctor be found to treat her sick son. She was escorted out of the building by security and, presumably, continued her search for that elusive white doctor. (The “Karen” video went viral.)

In July of this year, Dr. Ruth S. Shim explained in a STAT News article that she is leaving organized psychiatry because of its structural racism. She wrote about experiencing “countless microaggressions” as a Black leader in the psychiatric community. She also expressed her belief that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) seems to have unwritten policies to deliberately “impede progress toward achieving racial equity.”

In a related STAT News article of January 2020, Uché Blackstock wrote about why Black doctors are leaving their jobs as faculty members at academic medical centers. She herself felt compelled to resign from her job because she “could no longer stand the lack of mentorship, promotion denial, and work environments embedded in racism and sexism.” It was a difficult decision for her to make, since there were few other Black role models among the faculty. However, she found the workplace toxic, oppressive, and racist. “If academic medical centers and their leaders cannot adequately support Black students and promote Black faculty,” Dr. Blackstock wrote, “then they will continue to leave.”

We Can’t Rest Yet

We’ve come a long way since 1837, when James McCune Smith became the first African American doctor. Jim Crow laws have been abolished. Schools—in theory, anyway—have been integrated. Recently, we’ve seen a huge wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Still, only 5 percent of physicians in the United States are Black, despite the fact that the population includes more than double that number of African Americans. That needs to change, but it is important to understand that parity representation in the medical profession alone would be insufficient. To honor the contributions of Black pioneers in medicine, we need to recognize their contributions to science and society, regardless of skin color.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book The Painful Truth, and co-producer of the documentaryIt Hurts Until You Die.” Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.


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