As this month draws to a close, we want to take a moment to acknowledge a very important part of February, which is Black History Month.
February is African American History Month or Black History Month - commemorating leaders, achievements, and the deep-rooted history of African and Black Americans in the United States. We wanted to reflect on the wonderful contributions that Black Americans have contributed in the medical field to honor them and acknowledge that without their dedication, intellect, and perseverance, we would not have the extensive medical advancements that we enjoy today. Although this is by no means a comprehensive list of every Black American who has contributed to the advancement of medicine, here are 5 outstanding healthcare professionals who advanced medicine and race relations in the U.S. that we would like to shine a spotlight on for Black History Month: 1. James McCune Smith, MD. First black American to receive a medical degree. James McCune Smith, MD, was certainly a man of firsts. In 1837, he became the first black American to receive a medical degree and own and operate a pharmacy. When Smith returned to New York from University in Glasgow, Scotland, his intellect and energy made him an instrumental figure in an emerging black community. A prominent abolitionist, Smith worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of the Colored People. He used his training in medicine and statistics to refute common misconceptions about race, intelligence, and medicine. 2. Alexander Augusta, MD. First black physician appointed director of a U.S. hospital. Alexander Augusta earned his medical degree at Trinity Medical College in Toronto, Canada, and established a successful medical practice in Canada before relocating to the U.S. in 1862. Drafted to serve in the Civil War, Dr. Augusta became the first commissioned 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 leaving Freedman's, Dr. Augusta continued in private practice and became a professor at Howard University Medical Department in Washington D.C.
3. Patricia Bath, MD. First black female physician awarded a patent for a medical invention. Patricia Bath received her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine in WashingtonD.C. She interned at Harlem Hospital in New York City from 1968 to 1969 and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970. Dr. Bath's accomplishments include the invention of a new device and technique for cataract surgery known as laserphaco, for which she was the first black woman to receive a medical patent (This invention is still used to treat cataracts to this very day!). She was the first woman appointed chair of ophthalmology at a U.S. medical institution (UCLA) in 1983. Dr. Bath retired from her post 10 years later and has since become an advocate for telemedicine, serving in roles related to emerging technology at Howard University and St. George's University in Grenada.
4. Alexa Canady, MD. First black female neurosurgeon. Dr. Canady struggled to secure a neurosurgical internship after earning her medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1975. But by 1981, Dr. Canady had become America's first black female neurosurgeon. She completed her residency at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and went on to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery, practicing at a number of respected medical institutions. In her most prominent role, she served as chief of neurosurgery at Detroit-based Children's Hospital of Michigan from 1987 to 2001. Under her direction, 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.
5. Charles Drew, MD. Pioneered techniques to preserve blood.
Charles Richard Drew, MD, is known as the “father of blood banking” after pioneering techniques to preserve blood. His research explored best practices for banking and transfusions, with the insights he learned helping him establish the first large-scale blood banks. Drew directed the Blood for Britain project during World War II. The project collected over 14,500 of plasma, which was then shipped to England.
These brave men and women found ways to circumvent cultural and socioeconomic oppression to bring the world lifesaving, healthcare contributions that we still utilize today. As a healthcare facility, Medical Center Barbour owes a great deal to these healthcare heroes and honors their work. As February ends, we also want to acknowledge that becoming a doctor, nurse or other medical professional has not always been an open door to Black Americans. We see your contributions and achievements and thank you. We encourage people, of all race, gender, or color to celebrate your gifts of medicine with us, especially those given to us by these pioneers. We celebrate our collective diversity with you and your diligence to pursue your dreams to enhance the medical field.