(Editor's note: This story has been updated to more accurately describe the historic role of Howard University School of Medicine.)
February 5, 2021, 4:47 pm News Staff — Black History Month is a time to reflect on the roles African Americans have played in shaping American history. For the Academy, this means recognizing the significant achievements and contributions Black Americans have made to the practice of medicine.
While the following timeline is by no means complete, it serves as a point of reference for those interested in learning more about the ways Black Americans have advanced the science and art of healing in the United States. (Pictured here is an unidentified Black physician examining a baby from the 1894-1952 archives of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.)
1783: James Durham was born into slavery in 1762. He learned how to read, write and work with patients from several physicians who owned him throughout his childhood, and came to New Orleans in 1783. Eventually, he bought his freedom and opened a medical practice in the city, where he cared for patients of all racial backgrounds. Although he did not have a formal medical degree, Durham was successful in treating patients with diphtheria, and saved a high number of patients who experienced yellow fever during an outbreak in 1789.
1837: James McCune Smith, M.D., becomes the first Black American to practice in the United States with a medical degree. Because of segregated admission practices, Smith had to enroll at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He was also the first Black physician to establish and operate a pharmacy, and the first Black physician to publish articles in U.S. medical journals.
1864: Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D., becomes the first Black woman physician in the United States after earning her degree from the New England Female Medical College in Boston. Nineteen years later, she published Book of Medical Disclosures, a volume of medical advice for women and children.
1868: Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., begins its first series of classes on Nov. 9, becoming the first program in the United States to open its doors to medical students of all races, genders and social classes. Clinical instruction was offered for free, and a full course of lectures for the 1868-1869 school year cost $135.
1891: Daniel Hale Williams, M.D., opens the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Chicago, the first Black-owned and first interracial hospital in the United States. Two years later, Williams performed one of the world’s first successful heart surgeries, saving the life of a man who had been stabbed in the chest.
1895: The National Medical Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing Black physicians and health care professionals in the United States, is founded in Atlanta, Ga., with Robert Boyd, M.D., of Nashville appointed as the group’s first president.
1917: While working in Camp Upton, N.Y., Louis T. Wright, M.D., develops a technique for vaccinating soldiers against smallpox. More than 30 years later, he becomes the first clinician to investigate the treatment of humans with aureomycin, a tetracycline antibiotic.
1927: William Augustus Hinton, M.D., develops a test for diagnosing syphilis in infected patients. He helped create an improved version of the test four years later, and in 1936 authored Syphilis and Its Treatment, the first clinical medical textbook written by a Black physician. In 1949, he became the first Black person promoted to the title of professor at Harvard Medical School.
1939: Charles Drew, M.D., a surgeon, discovers that blood plasma can be dried and reconstituted when needed, making it an effective substitute for whole blood transfusions. He developed ways to process and preserve plasma in “blood banks,” a procedure that saved the lives of countless American soldiers during World War II and in later conflicts.
1957: The National Medical Association, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Urban League and Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia sponsor the first Imhotep National Conference on Hospital Integration, which plays a vital role in creating and implementing strategies to end segregation in health care.
1969: Alfred Day Hershey, Ph.D., a geneticist, becomes the first Black American to earn a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He received the award, along with Salvador Luria, M.D., and Max Delbrück, Ph.D., for his research on the replication and genetic structure of viruses.
1986: Herbert Nickens, M.D., is named the first director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he leads programs designed to promote health among racial and ethnic minority populations throughout the country. He later joined the Association of American Medical Colleges, where he became that organization’s first vice president for community and minority programs.
1987: Ben Carson, M.D., then serving as the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, leads a 70-member team in successfully completing the first surgical separation of conjoined twins attached at the back of the head.
1988: Patricia Bath, M.D., the first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology and a founding member of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, becomes the first Black female physician to receive a medical invention patent after inventing the Laserphaco Probe, a surgical tool that results in less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts.
1990: Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D., the author of a groundbreaking study on the treatment of sickle cell disease, becomes the first woman and first Black woman to direct a public health service bureau (the bureau of Primary Health Care in the Department of Health and Human Services), where she focuses on improving access to health care for underserved and minority communities.
1991: Vivian Pinn, M.D., becomes the first woman and first Black woman to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health. She remained with NIH until 2011; during that time, she also established and co-chaired the NIH Committee on Women in Biomedical Careers.
1991: Roselyn Payne Epps, M.D., M.P.H., becomes the first Black woman to serve as president of the American Medical Women’s Association. She also helped establish the AMWA Foundation.
1992: Mae Jemison, M.D., who spent a decade in private practice and then taught as a research physician with the Peace Corps, becomes the first Black woman in space as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Endeavor.
1993: Jocelyn Elders, M.D., who as a physical therapist in the 1950s helped then-President Dwight Eisenhower recuperate from a heart attack, becomes the first Black person to serve as surgeon general of the United States. During her tenure as surgeon general, she advocated for drug education and distribution of contraception in schools.
1995: Lonnie Bristow, M.D., an internist and former civil rights activist, is sworn in as the first Black president of the American Medical Association. Ten years earlier, Bristow became the first Black member of the AMA’s Board of Trustees, and in 1993, he became the first Black board chair.
1997: Family physician Donna Christian-Christensen, M.D., becomes the first woman physician and first Black woman physician to serve as an elected member of Congress, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands from 1997 to 2015.
1998: Family physician and AAFP member David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., is confirmed as surgeon general. From 1998 to 2001, he also served as assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services, becoming only the second person to hold both positions simultaneously.
2009: Family physician and AAFP member Regina Benjamin, M.D., is unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as surgeon general.
2011: William Coleman Jr., Ph.D., a microbiologist, is appointed as the first permanent scientific director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and the first Black scientific director in the history of the NIH Intramural Research Program.
2014: Camara Phyllis Jones, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., is elected president of the American Public Health Association.
2018: Beverly Murphy, M.L.S., begins her term as the first Black president of the Medical Library Association.
2019: Patrice Harris, M.D., M.A., is sworn in as the first Black woman president of the American Medical Association.
2020: Marcella Nunez-Smith, M.D., M.H.S., an associate dean for health equity research at Yale School of Medicine, is selected by president-elect Joe Biden as co-chair of the incoming administration’s new coronavirus task force.