Black history month | Three black medical pioneers to know

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February is Black History Month, providing an opportunity to cast a spotlight on the contributions of Black medical pioneers who have played pivotal roles in shaping the world of healthcare. 

 Dr. James McCune Smith

The story of Dr. McCune Smith is a testament to the power of diversity in medicine. Born into slavery in 1813, he became a free man via the passing of the Emancipation Act of New York on July 4th, 1827. When no American University would allow him to enroll, Dr. Smith moved to Scotland to attend the University of Glasgow, becoming the first African American to hold a medical degree. 

After spending time in Scotland he returned to New York to practice medicine. It is also where he became the first black person to own and operate a pharmacy and the first doctor of colour to be published in a U.S. medical journal. 

Beyond his medical practice, Dr. Smith emerged as a powerful anti-slavery and anti-racism advocate. He participated in the Glasgow Emancipation Society, an organization that supported his education and worked towards the abolition of slavery. 

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Crumpler, the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in America, faced the dual challenges of gender and racial prejudice in the mid to late 1800s. Dr. Crumpler’s passion for medicine was ignited by her experiences caring for sick neighbours, which led to her goal to “relieve the suffering of others” by becoming a doctor.

After earning her medical degree from the New England Medical College in 1864, Dr. Crumpler began her practice in Boston. However, during the American Civil War, she felt drawn to Richmond, Virginia, viewing it as “the proper field for real missionary work.”

Here, she delivered essential medical care to freed African Americans who faced significant barriers to accessing healthcare, primarily due to exclusion from most medical clinics. When they did manage to gain entry, they often encountered discriminatory practices such as being charged higher prices for the same medicines or receiving inferior treatment compared to their white counterparts. Without Dr. Crumpler, they would have had no access to care. Her journey epitomizes the impact that diversity in medicine can have on healthcare and how it is provided to people from all walks of life.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

Dr. Williams was born in 1856 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. He began his medical education as an apprentice to Dr. Henry Palmer, who was a physician and surgeon. After obtaining his medical degree at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, he started practicing medicine in Chicago as a surgeon, becoming one of only three black physicians at the time.

Dr. Williams’ practice grew rapidly because he chose to treat both black and white patients, and he was considered a very thoughtful and skilled surgeon. Due to racism and discrimination, African Americans were prohibited from being admitted to hospitals, and doctors and nurses were prohibited from practicing in hospitals. This led him to open the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, now called Provident Hospital of Cook County, Chicago.

Dr. Williams etched his name in medical history by becoming the first surgeon to successfully perform open-heart surgery in 1893. Remarkably, this groundbreaking operation was conducted without the aid of X-rays, antibiotics, or the sophisticated surgical tools available today. The patient, James Cornish, survived the procedure and was discharged after just 51 days, a testament to Dr. Williams’ remarkable surgical skill and dedication to advancing medical science.

 The final word

The lives of Dr. Smith, Dr. Crumpler, and Dr. Williams, highlight the importance of diversity in medicine. What they achieved despite all the obstacles, barriers and injustices in their way, is why they are considered black medical pioneers whose work and impacts are still felt today.

As we observe Black History Month, their legacies underscore the ongoing importance of diversity in medicine and the continued work needed towards creating more inclusive and equitable access to healthcare.

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