Skip to main content

The U.S. celebrates Black History Month in February. While it’s encouraged to research, listen and reflect on the struggles that Black Americans have faced, it’s also important to remember and celebrate the successes and triumphs that Black Americans have had as well. 

Certain parts of Black history are easier to recall, such as the millions of enslaved people and the war fought to keep them, the wins and losses of the civil rights movement and the continued discrimination and racism that exists in the country. 

While we’ve learned the history of these events throughout the course of our lives, understanding Black history is understanding that we’re still amid it. Many living Americans lived through the Jim Crow era, desegregation and the civil rights movement. A common thought is that the tragedies that happened to Black Americans were centuries and centuries ago when in fact, many of us could make a quick phone call to an older family member to get a first-hand account. 

So, this February, take a few hours to intentionally learn about Black history. If you’re a non-Black person, this could look like listening to the stories of Black Americans themselves (this doesn’t mean your Black friend, unless they’ve given consent), having the difficult conversations around race and privilege, and learning how you can be a true ally. 

Six Black clinicians who made medical and scientific history 

The impacts Black people have made in the field of medicine should not go without recognition. There have been several pioneers who have not only paved the way for future Black researchers and clinicians, but also made incredible discoveries and achievements during their lifetimes. 

Rebecca Lee Crumpler 

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to receive a medical degree in 1864. She was the first Black woman physician in the United States and is believed to have authored the first medical text ever written by any Black American in 1883, ”Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.”

Born in 1831, Crumpler first worked as a nurse in Massachusetts between 1852 and 1860. She attended New England Female Medical College and earned a medical degree in 1864. She practiced medicine in Boston, MA, and Richmond, VA, primarily working with those who had limited access to medical care. 

Read PBS News Hour’s Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African American Woman Physician and Time’s Rebecca Lee Crumpler, A Medical Milestone to learn more about her legacy. 

Patricia Bath 

Patricia Bath earned her medical degree from Howard University’s School of Medicine, and then went on to become the first Black American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973 at New York University. Following her residency, Bath became the first woman ophthalmologist appointed to the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine Jules Stein Eye Institute. In addition, Bath is the first Black American woman physician to receive a medical patent for her Laserphaco Probe — a device she invented to improve cataract treatment. 

Finally, Bath was the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States – Charles R Drew/UCLA Medical Education Program.  

Read Changing the Face of Medicine and Biography’s profiles of Bath for more information about her professional journey. 

Charles Richard Drew 

Charles Richard Drew, a Black surgeon and researcher, organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States. After earning a medical degree from McGill University School of Medicine in 1933, Drew became a faculty instructor at Howard University, and later an instructor in surgery and an assistant surgeon at Freedman’s Hospital.

As World War II casualties increased, the need for blood plasma intensified. Drew was selected as medical director of the Blood for Britain Project — successfully collecting 14,500 pints of vital plasma for the British. He was then appointed as director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank in 1941 — leading efforts in charge of blood for use by the United States Army and Navy. As director, Drew called for inclusion of the blood of Black people in plasma-supply networks, which had been excluded during that time. The armed forces rejected Drew’s arguments, ruling in 1942 that the blood of Black people would be accepted, yet mandating its separate storage from that of white people. Such racism prompted Drew’s resignation.

Drew died on April 1, 1950, in Burlington, North Carolina, in a car accident while en route to a conference. Despite the prompt and competent care from the white physicians at a nearby hospital, he was too badly injured to survive. Because of widespread racism and discriminatory practices during that era, many believe Drew died from being denied admission to the white hospital or was denied a blood transfusion. These suppositions have been debunked repeatedly. 

The United States National Library of Science and the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science offer extensive accounts of Drew’s life story.

Daniel Hale Williams

In 1893, Daniel Hale Williams became the first surgeon to perform open-heart surgery on a human being — James Cornish — at Provident Hospital in Chicago. Williams was the founder of Provident in 1891, which was the first hospital owned and operated by a Black American in the United States. Williams performed Cornish’s open-heart surgery without X-rays, antibiotics, surgical prep-work or tools of modern surgery. Cornish was discharged 51 days later. 

In 1894, Williams moved to Washington, DC, and became chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital. There, he focused on addressing health disparities via calls to employ multiracial health professionals. He also co-founded the National Medical Association in 1895 —  a professional organization accepting Black healthcare providers who were banned from the exclusively white American Medical Association. 

Jackson Heart Study Graduate Training and Education Center offers a more in-depth account of Williams’ medical achievements.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Mahoney graduated from New England Hospital for Women and Children’s nursing school in 1879, making her the first Black American to earn a professional nursing license. Mahoney was also among the first Black members of the American Nurses Association (ANA). Once licensed, Mahoney did not pursue a career in public nursing due to racism and discrimination, a social norm in the United States at the time. Mahoney chose to be a private nurse, focusing on providing individualized care. Her patients resided along the East Coast and comprised of mostly wealthy white people.

The Mary Mahoney Award — founded in 1936 by the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses — elevates nurses or groups of nurses promoting integration within their profession. The American Nurses Association — starting in 1952 — continues to bestow the award today.

The National Women’s History Museum and the American Association for the History of Nursing provide additional insight into Mahoney’s work. 

Helen Octavia Dickens 

Helen Octavia Dickens, a surgeon and professor in obstetrics and gynecology, was the first Black woman fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Dickens graduated from Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago in 1934 and was the only Black woman in a class of 137 students. Dickens completed her residency in obstetrics at Provident Hospital in Chicago. 

In 1945, Dickens became the first Black, board-certified provider by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Philadelphia. She was appointed director of Philadelphia’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital that same year.  

Dickens was eventually named chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Women’s Hospital later taken over by the University of Pennsylvania in 1951. In 1965, Dickens became an instructor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She became a full professor in 1976 and professor emeritus in 1985. 

The American College of Surgeons provides a deeper dive into Dickens’ medical career.

Black history at UW Medicine 

If you’re wondering how you can learn more about the achievements made by Black people within the field of medicine, a great place to start your research is within your own community. For example, it wasn’t until 1969 when the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services had their first Black employee.  

UW Medicine has made progress since then, with initiatives such as the Office of Healthcare Equity that works to further health equity in our state and region by advancing diversity and inclusiveness throughout teaching, patient care and research programs.

As the community continues to listen to its Black voices and change old policies to create an anti-racist workplace and school, Black UW Medicine faculty, staff and alumni are still making history today. Alumni Margaret Towolawi, MD, opened a direct primary care office to help address racial disparities in medicine, and there are UW Medicine-led efforts to address the disparities in breast cancer diagnosis in Black women. 

Resources for Black community members 

As exciting and encouraging Black History Month is, it can also be exhausting to once again listen to traumatic stories that live within the Black community. Practice self-care with some of these suggestions: 

Resources for non-Black allies

If you are not Black and you’re looking for ways to support your Black community members, here are some great (and accessible) ways to start. 





Local resources