The contributions of African Americans to medicine date back to the American Revolutionary War. In honor of Black History Month, this list highlights some of the notable figures who have championed better health care access for black Americans, helped develop medical breakthroughs and broke glass ceilings for women in the medical field.
Alexa Irene Canady, first female African American neurosurgeon
Dr. Alexa Irene Canady, 67, has said she almost dropped out of college when she started her undergraduate degree. But she pressed on and discovered her love of medicine working on genetics research. Canady, a native of Lansing, Michigan, pursued her studies in pediatrics.
In 1981, she became the first female African American neurosurgeon in the United States. Her research in children includes studies on the effects of hydrocephalus, a condition characterized by the excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain.
James Durham, first African American physician
Historical records on James Durham are scant. But many consider the Philadelphia native to be the first African American physician in the United States. His surname appears as Derham in some accounts.
Durham, who did not earn a medical degree, was born into slavery in 1762 and became an assistant to doctors who purchased him. He reportedly bought his freedom and established a medical practice in New Orleans, where he successfully treated patients during an outbreak of yellow fever in the late 1780s. He worked briefly in Philadelphia with renowned physician Dr. Benjamin Rush.
His date of death is unknown.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African American woman to earn a medical degree
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler worked as a nurse for almost 10 years before becoming the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Crumpler worked as a nurse and physician in Massachusetts and Virginia.
Crumpler, who received her medical degree in 1864, focused her practice on women and children. In 1883, she published what is believed to be the first medical text written by an African American author. The book addressed the treatment and prevention of diseases in women and children.
The native of Delaware died in 1895. She was 64.
James McCune Smith, first African American man to earn a medical degree
Physician and scholar Dr. James McCune Smith is believed to be the first African American man to earn a degree in medicine. After he was denied college admission in the United States, he moved to Scotland and earned his medical degree there in 1837.
Smith also is believed to be the first black physician to publish articles in U.S. medical journals. His writings include texts on science, education, racism and literature.
The New York City native died in 1865. He was 52.
Myra Adele Logan, first woman to perform open-heart surgery
In 1943, Dr. Myra Adele Logan became the first woman to perform open-heart surgery. It was reportedly the ninth time the procedure had been performed worldwide.
Logan's research included studying antibiotics and breast cancer. Her notable contributions include developing more accurate tests to detect density differences in breast tissue. A surgeon at Harlem Hospital in New York, she was also a founding partner of the first physicians group practice in the United States.
The native of Tuskegee, Alabama, died in 1977. She was believed to be 68.
Nathan Francis Mossell, co-founder of one of the first black hospitals in the U.S.
In 1895, Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell helped rally African Americans in Philadelphia to establish the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, one of the first hospitals in the United States where black doctors treated black patients.
Also a surgeon, Mossell served as the hospital's chief of staff and medical director for more than three decades. He championed women in medicine and was a civil rights activist.
The native of Hamilton, Canada, died in 1946. He was 90.
Vivien Theodore Thomas, pioneered surgery to correct tetralogy of Fallot
A former carpenter, Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas dropped out of college after losing most of his savings during the Great Depression.
Later trained as a surgical assistant, Thomas in 1944 helped devise the "blue baby surgery" with surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock and pediatric cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig at The Johns Hopkins Hospital to correct a congenital heart defect known as tetralogy of Fallot. He was the subject of the 2004 HBO film "Something the Lord Made."
The native of Louisiana died in 1985. He was 75.
Louis T. Wright, pioneer in antibiotic research
Dr. Louis T. Wright followed in his father's footsteps and became a physician. In the 1940s, Wright led a team that studied how the antibiotic chlortetracycline affects humans.
Wright served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I. During his service, he developed a better vaccination technique to protect soldiers from smallpox. He also became an expert in head injuries.
The surgeon worked primarily in New York. In 1919, he was the first African American staff physician at New York's Harlem Hospital and later became the first African American surgeon hired by the New York City Police Department.
The native of La Grange, Georgia died in 1952. He was 61.
Daniel Hale Williams III, one of first doctors to perform open-heart surgery in the U.S.
Cardiologist Dr. Daniel Hale Williams III was one of the first physicians to perform heart surgery in the United States. The former shoemaker's apprentice performed the surgery in 1893 on a man who suffered a stab wound.
William's contributions in medicine went beyond the operating room. The physician helped found the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, reportedly the first U.S. hospital with a racially integrated staff. Williams also helped establish the National Medical Association, a professional organization for African Americans in medicine.
Hale, a native of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, died in 1931. He was 75.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 25, 2020, to clarify that Dr. Alexa Irene Canady was the first female African American neurosurgeon. Dr. Clarence Sumner Greene, Sr., became the first African American certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery in 1953.
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