Celebrating Juneteenth and Black Americans’ Contributions to Medicine

By Remedy Health | March 23, 2021

What is Juneteenth?

Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those held as slaves, on January 1, 1863. It took an additional 2.5 years beyond that for the last enslaved people to be freed in Galveston, TX. June 19, 1865 – Juneteenth – is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of the actual owning of slaves in the United States.

Even during the era of slavery, Blacks contributed significantly to the advancement of medicine in the United States, and those contributions have continued ever since.

1721 – Onesimus, an enslaved African, describes to Cotton Mather the African method of inoculation against smallpox. The technique, later used to protect American Revolutionary War soldiers, is perfected in the 1790’s by British doctor Edward Jenner’s use of a less virulent organism.

1783 – Dr. James Durham, born into slavery in 1762, buys his freedom and begins his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first African-American doctor in the United States. As a youngster, he was owned by a number of doctors, who taught him how to read and write, mix medicines, and serve and work with patients. Durham had a flourishing medical practice in New Orleans until 1801 when the city restricted his practice because he did not have a formal medical degree. In 1788 Dr. Durham is invited to Philadelphia to meet Dr. Benjamin Rush, who wanted to investigate Durham’s reported success in treating patients with diphtheria. Dr. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of America’s foremost physicians, was so impressed that he personally read Durham’s paper on diphtheria before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Durham returned to New Orleans in 1789, where he saved more yellow fever victims than any other physician — during an epidemic that killed thousands, he lost 11 of 64 patients.

1837 – Dr. James McCune Smith graduates from the University of Glasgow (in Scotland, because he was not allowed to study at U.S. medical colleges), becoming the first African American to earn a medical degree. He was also the first black person to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States and the first black physician to be published in U.S. medical journals.

1862 – Born a slave in Georgia in 1848, Susie Baker (who later became known as Susie King Taylor) is the first African-American U.S. Army nurse during the Civil War. Taylor volunteered for the Union Army and served as a sort of jack-of-all-trades. There wasn’t much she couldn’t do, including firing a gun with impressive accuracy. But perhaps most importantly, Taylor bravely nursed soldiers with little regard to her own health and safety. In fact, against orders, she snuck into the tents of soldiers who had been quarantined with smallpox and provided them with the care they needed to recover. After the war, she helped to organize a branch of the Women’s Relief Corps.

1868 – Howard University School of Medicine, established for the purpose of educating African-American doctors, opens to both black and white students, including women.

1891 – Dr. Daniel Hale Williams establishes the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first Black-owned and first interracial hospital in the United States.

1893 – At Provident Hospital, Dr. Williams performs the first successful operation on a human heart. (The patient, a victim of a chest stab wound, survived and lived a normal life for twenty years after the operation.)

1912 – Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, a former research assistant to Alois Alzheimer and recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist, publishes the first comprehensive clinical review of all Alzheimer’s cases that have been reported up to this time. He was the first to translate into English much of Alois Alzheimer’s work on the disease that bears his name.

1940 – Dr. Charles R. Drew presents his thesis, “Banked Blood,” at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. The thesis covers two years of blood research, including the discovery that plasma could replace whole blood transfusions. Known as the “father of blood banking,” Dr. Drew pioneered blood preservation techniques that led to thousands of lifesaving blood donations. Drew’s doctoral research explored best practices for banking and transfusions, and its insights helped him establish the first large-scale blood banks. Drew directed the Blood for Britain project, which shipped much-needed plasma to England during World War II. Drew then led the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and created mobile blood donation stations that are now known as bloodmobiles. But Drew’s work was not without struggle. He protested the American Red Cross’ policy of segregating blood by race and ultimately resigned from the organization.

1951 – African American Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer and treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor took cells from her cervix without her knowledge. These cells were found to be unique in that they could be kept alive and would also grow indefinitely. Since that time, Lacks’ cells, now known as HeLa cells (in Lacks’ honor), have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine.

1954 – Dr. Peter Murray Marshall is installed as the President of the New York County Medical Society, becoming the first African American to lead a unit of the American Medical Association.

1988 – Dr. Patricia Bath is the first African-American woman physician to receive a medical patent with her Laserphaco Probe, which improved cataract treatment. Born in 1942 in Harlem, Bath became a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of blindness. She also advocated for eyesight as a basic human right by founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976.

1990 – Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston becomes the first female and first African American physician to direct the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care. She was also the second black woman to serve as assistant surgeon general, achieving the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. Her 1986 study of sickle-cell disease led to a nationwide screening program to test newborns for immediate treatment.

1993 – Dr. Joycelyn Elders is the first African American to be appointed as U.S. Surgeon General.

1995 – Dr. Lonnie Bristow becomes the first African American President of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its 148 year history. His work as president focused on many of the issues he addressed throughout his career including sickle cell anemia, coronary care, and socio-economic issues impacting health care. His goals included reforming the profession by expanding the range of care doctors give to their patients, putting patients’ needs ahead of monetary interests, and improving the doctor-patient relationship.

2019 – Dr. Patrice Harris becomes the first Black woman President of the country’s largest physician organization, the American Medical Association (AMA). First elected to AMA’s board of trustees in 2011, Harris most recently was the group’s point person on the opioid epidemic. A recognized expert in children’s mental health and childhood trauma, Dr. Harris has led efforts on both local and national levels to integrate public health, behavioral health and primary care services with supports for employment, housing and education.

Resources for Minority Students Interested in Pursuing a Career in Medicine or Medical Research

Student National Medical Association – SNMA is the nation’s oldest and largest independent, student-run organization focused on the needs and concerns of medical students of color. SNMA is dedicated to ensuring culturally-sensitive medical education and services, as well as increasing the number of African American, Latino and other students of color entering and completing medical school.

Minorities in Medicine – Information on pre-med internships and summer programs, mentor programs, medical career fairs, as well as research and information on diversity and inclusion programs and outcomes.

AspiringDocs.org – Created by the Association of American Medical Colleges, this site provides helpful information and tools for those considering becoming a doctor. Information and advice from experts on preparing for medical school, taking the MCAT, admissions, financial aid, and financial management is available.

Opportunities for Students from Backgrounds Under-Represented in the Health Professions – Brown University has compiled a list of summer programs for minority students interested in a career in medicine or medical research.


Black History Month: A Medical Perspective: Chronology of Achievements

African-American Trailblazers in Medicine and Medical Research

Celebrating 10 African-American Medical Pioneers

Black Past – Lonnie Bristow

BlackDoctor.org – Dr. Patrice Harris Becomes First Black Woman President of American Medical Association

AMA – Patrice Harris, MD, MA

Posted in History of Medicine – Remedy Health Direct Primary Care and tagged Black History, History of Medicine – Remedy Health, Medical History

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