From integrating medical education to developing a device to treat cataracts, Black Americans have been instrumental in the advancement of healthcare and medical technology.

Unfortunately, their stories are not widely known. Here we take a look at a few of the many Black pioneers in medicine, equity and health.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD, is the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from a U.S. university (The New England Female Medical College, 1864), and one of the first Black Americans to publish a medical text, Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883. A former nurse, she opened her own practice in Boston.

Mary Mahoney, RN, became the first Black American to earn a nursing degree upon graduating from the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s training school in 1879. The nation’s first Black professional nurse, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada in 1896, one of only a few Black women among its members. Finding the organization unwelcoming, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908 to foster community and promote advocacy. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association and the National Women’s Halls of Fame.

Solomon Carter Fuller, MD, is the first Black American psychiatrist (earning his degree in 1897) and a leading authority on Alzheimer’s disease. In 1904, he collaborated with Alois Alzheimer to study dementia and other cognitive issues and published the first collective review of Alzheimer’s cases in 1912. His work also included pathology and the study of depression, schizophrenia and other mental health issues. The Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston, named in his honor, is a teaching affiliate for Boston University School of Medicine.

Charles Drew, PhD, MD, was a surgeon, researcher and racial equity advocate. He established a new way to store blood for transfusion and hatched the idea for what would become known as The Bloodmobile. He was the first director of the Red Cross Blood Bank (1941) but resigning in protest after the organization decided to segregate Black Americans’ blood donations. He was later appointed chief surgeon at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, DC, and the first Black examiner for the American Board of Surgery.

Patricia Bath, MD, is the first female ophthalmologist in the UCLA School of Medicine’s department of ophthalmology (1974) and, upon becoming its chair, the first woman to lead an American ophthalmology department (1983). Bath is the first Black American woman to hold a medical patent for laserphaco, a device and procedure she invented to treat cataracts. She also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN, is the first man to serve as president of ANA. An international expert in burn care and fire safety, he ran the nationally noted burn prevention program for the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at the University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill. In 2002, he was named Nurse of the Year for his work treating 9/11 burn victims from the World Trade Center. In 2013, Grant received the B.T. Fowler Lifetime Achievement Award from the North Carolina Fire and Life Safety Education Council honoring his work in fire safety, burn prevention and education.  

Many other Black Americans influenced and improved the way we care for patients and residents and treat their conditions. We encourage you to explore and promote the Black innovators in your organization, geographic area or specialty. 

About Margot Carmichael Lester

Margot Carmichael Lester is a North Carolina-based business and brand journalist who has covered healthcare and staffing for more than 20 years. She also writes about moviemaking for the International Cinematographers Guild, specializing in action cinema, and co-authored the award-winning teen writing book, Be a Better Writer. She earned her BA in journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is a rabid Tar Heel basketball fan.