Medical history makers, past and present
As long as we’ve been in America, we’ve been making history, and we’re still doing it. This is the Black Health Matters Black History Month salute to the medical history makers, past and present. Black history is American history.
Hadiyah Nicole Green, Ph.D., is one of less than a hundred black women physicists in the United States. As an assistant professor of physics at Tuskegee University, she’s currently working on a new way to fight cancer. As an alternative to chemotherapy, Green’s technique has a cancer patient injected with a drug that contains nanoparticles, which cause the patient’s tumor to glow. A laser will be used to heat up the nanoparticles. Her goal? A less-expensive cancer treatment with fewer side effects.
Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., was an African-American surgeon and civil rights activist. As a teen, he was committed to advancing the rights of African Americans, participating in the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and later serving as a part-time volunteer driver for Martin Luther King Jr., who pastored the church Dr. Watkins belonged to when he was growing up in Alabama. As Dr. Watkins advanced in his medical career, he never left these roots behind and later broke many barriers in the medical field. He became the first African American to be admitted to and to graduate from Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, he developed the cardiac arrhythmia service at Johns Hopkins and, in 1980, Dr. Watkins performed the world’s first human implantation of the automatic defibrillator in a human patient.
Keith L. Black, M.D., is a neurosurgeon who specializes in the treatment of brain tumors. Chair of the neurosurgery department and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, he also is known for campaigning for funding of cancer treatment. A prolific surgeon—he’s performed more than 5,000 brain surgeries in his career—he’s frequently been featured as a hero in medicine with a reputation as a surgeon who will operate on tumors other doctors won’t touch. He has most recently turned his attention to finding a way to diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier.
Daniel Hale Williams, M.D., is a study in firsts. He founded Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first black-owned hospital in America, and, in 1893, he performed the first successful heart surgery.
Lincoln Diuguid, the first African American to earn advanced degrees from Cornell University, was told to pass for white so he could get better jobs. He declined, choosing instead to teach and search for a cure for cancer. Diuguid passed away in January 2014, just days short of reaching his 98th birthday. Would we be closer to a cure for cancer if he’d been allowed to share his gifts with the world?
Alice Ball was the first person to isolate the active agents in chaulmoogra oil (used to treat leprosy), making the once-painful therapy more effective and less unpleasant. Unfortunately, she didn’t live to see the impact of her work; she died at age 24, less than a year after developing her treatment.
Foyekemi Ikyaator, M.D., a 32-year-old emergency room physician, opened up a stand-alone, full-service emergency room, Life Savers ER, in northwest Houston, late last year. Designed so ER patients can receive more specified medical treatment, Lifesavers has a no-wait policy (patients can check in online), and it offers free flu shots and $10 sports physicals. If patients need to be admitted to a hospital, the facility handles the paperwork for the transfer.
Before he entered the current presidential race, Ben Carson, M.D., was a neurosurgeon. Among his achievements at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he was director of pediatric neurosurgery for nearly 30 years, were separating conjoined twins Patrick and Benjamin Binder, who were joined at the back of the head, and refining a hemispherectomy technique for controlling severe pediatric epilepsy. Though the Binder twins didn’t have very normal lives following the separation, their surgery served as the blueprint for similar twin separations, a procedure which was refined in subsequent decades. Carson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, and both achievements were recognized in the honor.
Eliza Ann Grier, M.D., an emancipated slave, was the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in the state of Georgia. It took her seven years to finish medical school because she alternated each year of school with a year of picking cotton to pay tuition. According to a notice in the North American Medical Review in 1898, when Grier applied for a medical license in Georgia, she became the first African-American woman admitted to practice in the state. “When I saw colored women doing all the work in cases of accouchement [childbirth],” she was quoted as saying, “and all the fee going to some white doctor who merely looked on, I asked myself why should I not get the fee myself. For this purpose I have qualified. I went to Philadelphia, studied medicine hard, procured my degree, and have come back to Atlanta, where I have lived all my life, to practice my profession. Some of the best white doctors in the city have welcomed me, and say that they will give me an even chance in the profession. That is all I ask.”
Charles Richard Drew, M.D., a surgeon and a professor at Howard University, developed a means of preserving blood plasma for transfusion. During World War II, he headed the program that sent blood to Great Britain. After the war, Drew was appointed the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank.
Born a slave, James Derham, M.D., is the first recognized black physician in the United States. After being owned by a series of slave masters who were also physicians, Derham landed in New Orleans with a Scottish physician. That physician hired him in 1783 to perform medical services. He bought his freedom at age 21 and established his own medical practice in the Crescent City.
Mary Eliza Mahoney, America’s first black professionally trained nurse, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses in 1879, having worked there for 15 years before being accepted into its nursing school.
From 1844-1846, David Peck, M.D., studied medicine under Joseph P. Gaszzam, an anti-slavery white doctor in Pittsburgh. Peck then entered Rush Medical College in Chicago in 1846, three years after the college opened. He graduated in 1847, becoming the first black man to graduate from an American medical school.
James McCune Smith, M.D., was the first African American to hold a medical degree, having graduated at the top of his class at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. At the age of 25, when he returned from medical school in Scotland, Smith rose at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society and spoke out against slavery, telling the crowd about abolitionist support in Europe. He was also the first African American to own and operate a pharmacy in this country.
Patricia Bath, M.D., the first African-American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center, invented a method for removing cataracts. Before Bath’s invention, the common method to remove cataracts, a clouding of the lens in the eye leading to a decrease in vision, was the use of a grinding, drill-like device. Bath’s invention, the cataract laserphaco probe, used the power of a laser to quickly and painlessly vaporize cataracts from patients’ eyes. She is the founder and first president of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.
Ida Gray Nelson Rollins worked in the dental office of Jonathan Taft while attending high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. Taft, dean at the University of Michigan’s dental school, was an early supporter of women dentists and encouraged her to apply to the University of Michigan. After graduation, she became the first African-American woman dentist, eventually opening a practice in Chicago.