As a woman of color in the medical profession today, I have a long line of brilliant and courageous pioneers to thank. Their contributions have benefited humanity regardless of race, sex, gender, or creed. These trailblazers have paved the way for other persons of color drawn to the medical profession. During this Black History Month, I would like to pay a special tribute to these pioneers, as a way of thanking them for making it possible, not only to follow in their intrepid footsteps but also to continue paving the way for future generations.
Pioneering Contributors Dating Back to 1721
The year was 1721. It marks the beginning of the history of African Americans making a contribution to the medical field. At that time, Onesimus, an enslaved African described to his owner, Cotton Mather, the African method of inoculation against smallpox. The technique was later used to protect American Revolutionary War soldiers and was subsequently perfected in the 1790s by British doctor Edward Jenner’s use of a less virulent organism. In so doing, a major contribution which began with Onesimus, protected American soldiers against smallpox.
There are so many “firsts” to recognize, from the first successful open-heart surgery performed by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in 1893 to the first black professional nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney, in 1879 to Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in 1864. Dr. Charles Drew led the way on how to store plasma for blood transfusions, and Dr. James Smith was the first black man to practice medicine in the United States with a medical degree. Over the centuries and decades, many more have made significant contributions in the medical field. I invite you to visit and explore these inspiring stories at the references listed below.
My heartfelt gratitude goes to each and every one of these individuals, and many others that cannot be exhaustively listed herein. These shared histories of courageously following their dreams in medicine were fraught with having to face and overcome the ignorance that is racism, sexism, and elitism. While these attitudes have improved over the years, several of these pervasive inhumane attitudes still exist. We must continuously strive for these attitudes to be dissolved at an individual and community level, because humanity ultimately benefits when each individual can achieve his or her positive potential as we have learned from these amazing trailblazers. Their recognitions should remain in our awareness, not just during Black History Month, but at all times.
I am deeply grateful to those who came before me, to those who are on the path now, and to those who are sure to follow in their courage, grace, and brilliance. May you forever shine!