Remembering the African American Achievements in Healthcare | Black History Month | NEIH

Updated: Mar 19


The American Healthcare System has been built by people of all races, religions, and social decrees. Contributions have been made by people of all backgrounds however, it is important to note that America has not always supported an all-inclusive environment particularly, in the healthcare field and the research sector. Sadly, African Americans were not always given equal representation and rights in this country. In honor of Black History Month, this list will look at the achievements Africans Americans have brought to healthcare and medicine even in times of discrimination while those men and women held a “second class” status. It is important to reflect on American History to see how far we have come to understand how far we still need to go.


Stand Out Contributions from the 1800s to the 1900s


Mary E. Mahoney

Mrs. Mary E. Mahoney was the first African American Registered Nurse and one of the first members of the American Nurses Association (ANA). She was born during the time of slavery in 1845, in Boston Massachusetts. Mary was born to freed slaves which allowed her access to education. She completed her nursing program in 1879 however, she was not able to enter the nursing profession due to discrimination. Instead, Mrs. Mahoney worked as a private nurse for wealthy families in the northeast. Mary E. Mahoney advocated for equality for white and black women. She became the Director of Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children and also fought for women's rights to vote. Through her career, Mary E. Mahoney received servel awards for her work in healthcare and other humanitarian achievements.


Daniel Hale Williams

Dr. Williams was a pioneer for his time. In the late 1800s hospitals were segregated by race. Some white hospitals would not admit black patients or staff black employees. Daniel Hale Williams sought to change that. In 1891 Williams opened the first healthcare facility that employed white and black staff and admitted white and black patients. In 1893 Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first-ever physicians to successfully perform open-heart surgery and became chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital which treated former slaves. Dr. Williams consistently advocated for the African American contribution to medicine throughout his career and is still honored today.


Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Crumpler was the first female African American physician in the United States. She worked as a nurse in Massachusetts during the 1850s. For ten years she gathered several letters of recommendation from the doctors she worked for before enrolling in the New England Female Medical College in the 1860s where she graduated from four years later with a medical degree. She was also one of the first African Americans to publish a medical book titled, Medical Discourses. This book included years of medical notes she made during her practice. She worked in Dr. Daniel Hale William's hospital and treated former slaves.


Stand Out Contributions from the 1900s to the 2000s


Alexa Irene Canady

Dr. Alexa Canady becomes the first African- American woman neurosurgeon during the 1980s. Dr. Canady has a true story of perseverance. After dropping out of college due to a grave lack of confidence, she returned to school to finish her bachelor's degree and went on to medical school. During her residency, Dr. Canady faced discrimination from her peers. In one incident she recalled overhearing an administrator say that she was only in hospital as apart of an "equal-opportunity package", not because of her skills and abilities. She took the inequality she faced and used it as fuel in her career and would later be named one of the top residents at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.


Patricia E. Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath revolutionized treatment for eye-related diseases and was the first African American female physician to receive a medical patent for her Laserphaco Probe. She was the first female African American to complete a residency in Opthalmology in 1973. Dr. Bath advocated for eyesight as a basic human right and founded the American Institue for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976 which lead the foundation for her revolutionary work in the field of ophthalmology. Her medical patent for the Laserphaco Probe greatly improved the current treatment for cataracts.


M. Joycelyn Elders

Joycelyn Elders was born in 1933 in a poor racial segregated community of Arkansas. During her primary and secondary education, she attended a segregated school that was 13 miles away from her home. During college Joycelyn Elders was inspired by Dr. Edith Irby Jones, who was the first African American enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical school. Fueled with inspiration, she completed college and medical school. Dr. Elders published over 100 papers mostly on health-related illnesses of pediatric patients. Dr. Elder wad the first African American woman to serve as Head of Department Health in Arkansas, appointed by Governor Bill Clinton and was also the first African American woman to be appointed to the Surgeon General by President Bill Clinton. During her time in these positions, Dr. Elders revolutionized the country's approach to sex education, drug prevention and programs to promote self-esteem in the k-12 curriculum.




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