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Have you ever touted the wonders of laser eye surgery to remove cataracts, blood transfusions, or pacemakers? We might not be promoting these and other advancements today if it were not for the ingenuity of African American scientists, practitioners, and other innovative people of color.
Black History Month highlights the significant contributions that African Americans have made to crucial medical advancements. Many of these people still need to receive the historical accolades they deserve. Nevertheless, if not for them, we wouldn’t have the life-saving medical innovations we take for granted today.
This observance originates in the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, which author and historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson spearheaded. In 1986, Congress passed legislation that designated February National Black (Afro-American) History Month. Black History Month raises awareness of African Americans’ significant contributions, despite the prejudice, discrimination, and bias they have and continue to face.
Many pioneering African Americans have applied their skills and knowledge to solve medical problems, contributing to advancements in public health and healthcare delivery, despite the adversity and health inequities they encountered.
Open-heart surgery, blood transfusions, and pacemakers are some modern innovations for which we can thank African American trailblazers in medicine and healthcare. The following individuals are some of the pioneers who overcame cultural barriers to facilitate medical developments that have saved millions of lives.
James McCune Smith, M.D. In 1837, American-born Dr. Smith earned his medical degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he did not face as much bigotry and discrimination as he would have in his home country. He later moved to New York, where he became the first Black man to practice medicine in the United States.
Patricia Bath, M.D. Dr. Bath is a research scientist and educator with a medical degree from Howard University. She developed a method of laser eye surgery to remove cataracts. Patients worldwide have benefited from this widely used procedure.
Leonidas Harris Berry, M.D. In the 1950s, gastroenterologist Dr. Berry worked to encourage the inclusion of more black physicians in hospitals. His leadership in Chicago also led to more healthcare facilities being opened in underserved sections of the city.
Otis Boykin. Boykin, an electronics pioneer, is perhaps best known for improving the pacemaker, a small device that detects when the heart is beating too slowly or irregularly. Also, he patented almost 30 other electronic devices.
Charles Richard Drew, M.D. Dr. Drew is often hailed as the “father of blood banking.” He provided leadership in developing methods for preserving blood for donations and transfusions. Dr. Drew also led the first blood bank of the American Red Cross, also creating mobile stations that have since evolved into bloodmobiles.
Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D. Dr. Gaston is mainly responsible for advancing our knowledge and understanding of sickle cell disease, which leads to pain and complications for millions of people. Her research led to the development of sickle cell screening methods for newborns that are now widespread.
William Augustus Hinton, M.D. A graduate of Harvard Medical School in 1912, Dr. Hinton was the first African American to publish a textbook, which was titled, Syphilis and Its Treatment. He developed the “Hinton test,” a water-based chemical process for detecting syphilis in patients.
Mae C. Jemison, M.D. Dr. Jemison became the first African American astronaut in NASA history in 1992. She collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to research many types of vaccines and conducted many experiments aboard the Shuttle Endeavor.
Daniel Hale Williams, M.D. Many people depend on open-heart surgery to save their lives. Dr. Williams was the first African American cardiologist to perform this surgery successfully. In addition to serving as the first Black member of the American College of Surgeons, he opened the first Black-owned and non-segregated hospital in the United States in 1891.
Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D. A researcher in immunology and infectious diseases, Dr. Corbett has worked on novel coronavirus vaccines since 2014. Her work has been influential in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, which helped slow the spread of the virus.
Many of the medical advancements we take for granted today are largely due to the contributions of many African American researchers and physicians. Despite the cultural obstacles they have faced, their contributions to medicine and healthcare have improved our life expectancy and quality of life.
By: Angelique Riley
My name is Angelique Riley, and I have been at Grane Hospice Care, King of Prussia (an Abode Healthcare and BrightSpring Health Services company), for a little over two and a half years. I joined Grane after spending twenty years managing Life Enrichment in Continuing Care Retirement Centers. I found Life Enrichment rewarding, but it was time to hang up that hat and move on to another venture.
I chose to work in Hospice Care to share my natural gift of helping people during the most difficult time of their lives. I take pride in sharing compassion, support, and a great deal of care with our patients. It is a great honor to be spotlighted in our employee newsletter, and to share what Black History Month means to me.
Black History Month is an annual observance originating in the United States, where it is also known as African American History Month. It began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. Now that you have the Wikipedia definition of Black History Month; let me tell you what Black History Month really means…
Black History cannot be contained or limited to a single month. I grew up in a family where we honored and embraced our heritage year-round. My siblings and I were educated by our father on the rich history of African Americans. He taught us about inventors, writers, educators, musicians, and other notable Black figures.
It was important to my father that we had knowledge of our own history. We grew up as military children and were exposed to many different cultures and environments. My father prided himself in educating us on African American studies because he knew our schools and society, would more likely teach us an inaccurate version of our history, if they mentioned African Americans at all.
American schools teach students about Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the enslavement of African American people in the US. Those are important topics to cover, but that barely scrapes the surface of African American contributions to our society. Sparse lesson plans fail to mention the large numbers of African American scientists, physicians, attorneys, and professors who have made huge contributions to American progress.
A quick funny story: When I was in World History Class my junior year in High School in Lawton, Oklahoma, the teacher presented a lecture about religion in the African American community. I remember cringing in my seat, my spirit stirred with frustration because the lesson was filled with errors about my history and my culture. I could not remain silent.
Each time that the teacher mispronounced a name, gave an inaccurate date, or worse, attributed an accomplishment to the wrong person, I spoke up and corrected him. After I contradicted him four or five times, the teacher grew so frustrated that he shouted,
“DO YOU WANT TO TEACH THE CLASS?”. I rose to my feet and said, “Yes, I do”.
It did not end well for me that day. I was sent to the office immediately and punished with an In-House Suspension. Despite the repercussions, I never regretted what I did.
My experience confirmed my father’s prediction that the school was not going to teach the proper information on African American History. Since my father took the time to teach me, I knew my history and had the conviction to share it with my peers.
I shared this story to illustrate the importance of teaching African American History and embracing it as an ongoing celebration in the African American Community. I am grateful to see schools, businesses and the community recognize Black History.
The month of February is a time to honor our ancestors and their hidden or overlooked contributions. It is also a time to reflect on the work still to be done.
Black History Month is a reminder that Black Is Love. I love being an African American woman and getting to reflect with others who are also proud to be African American. Black History Month is an invitation for others to join in the ongoing celebration of black excellence. It is unity in its highest form.