Celebrating 10 African-American medical pioneers

These trailblazers broke barriers and shattered stereotypes — and went on to conduct research, discover treatments, and provide leadership that improved the health of millions.
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The Flying Black Medics, created by Leonidas Harris Berry, MD, return from providing medical care and education to Cairo, Illinois, residents in 1970. Credit: National Institutes of Health.

They fought slavery, prejudice, and injustice — and changed the face of medicine in America. They invented modern blood-banking, served in the highest ranks of the U.S. government, and much more. In honor of Black History Month, read the inspiring stories of 10 pioneering black physicians.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831 — 1895) 

In 1864, after years as a nurse, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first black woman in the United States to receive an MD degree. She earned that distinction at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts — where she also was the institution’s only black graduate. After the Civil War, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she worked with other black doctors who were caring for formerly enslaved people in the Freedmen’s Bureau. While she faced sexism and other forms of harassment, Crumpler ultimately found the experience transformative. "I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration," she wrote. 

Crumpler also wrote A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts. Published in 1883, the book addresses children’s and women’s health and is written for “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” 

Note: No photos of Rebecca Lee Crumpler are known to exist.

James McCune Smith, MD (1813 — 1865)

James McCune Smith, MD, was a man of firsts. In 1837, he became the first black American to receive a medical degree — although he had to enroll at the University of Glasgow Medical School because of racist admissions practices at U.S. medical schools. And that was far from his only groundbreaking accomplishment. He was also the first black person to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States and the first black physician to be published in U.S. medical journals.

Smith used his writing talents to challenge shoddy science, including racist notions of African-Americans. Most notably, he debunked such theories in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Smith was a staunch abolitionist and friend of Frederick Douglass. He contributed to Douglass’ newspaper and wrote the introduction to his book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Leonidas Harris Berry, MD (1902 — 1995) 

Even as a renowned gastroenterologist, Leonidas Harris Berry, MD, faced racism in the workplace. Berry was the first black doctor on staff at the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, in 1946, but he had to fight for an attending position there for years. “I have spent many years of crushing disappointment at the threshold of opportunity,” he wrote to the hospital’s trustee board committee in his final plea, “keeping my lamps trimmed and bright for a bride that never came.” He was finally named to the attending staff in 1963 and remained a senior attending physician for the rest of his medical career.

In the 1950s, Berry chaired a Chicago commission that worked to make hospitals more inclusive for black physicians and to increase facilities in underserved parts of the city. But his dedication to equity reached far beyond the clinical setting: He was active in a civil rights group called the United Front that provided protection, monetary support, and other assistance to black residents of Cairo, Illinois, who had been victims of racist attacks. In 1970, he helped organize the Flying Black Medics, a group of practitioners who flew from Chicago to Cairo to bring medical care and health education to members of the remote community.  

Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904 — 1950)

Known as the “father of blood banking,” Charles Richard Drew, MD, pioneered blood preservation techniques that led to thousands of lifesaving blood donations. Drew’s doctoral research explored best practices for banking and transfusions, and its insights helped him establish the first large-scale blood banks. Drew directed the Blood for Britain project, which shipped much-needed plasma to England during World War II. Drew then led the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and created mobile blood donation stations that are now known as bloodmobiles. But Drew’s work was not without struggle. He protested the American Red Cross’ policy of segregating blood by race and ultimately resigned from the organization.  

Despite his renown for blood preservation, Drew’s true passion was surgery. He was appointed chairman of the department of surgery and chief of surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital (now known as Howard University Hospital) in Washington, D.C. During his time there, he went to great lengths to support young African-Americans pursuing careers in the discipline.

Louis Wade Sullivan, MD (b. 1933)

Louis Wade Sullivan, MD, grew up in the racially segregated rural South in the 1930s. There, he was inspired by his doctor, Joseph Griffin. “He was the only black physician in a radius of 100 miles,” Sullivan said. “I saw that Dr. Griffin was really doing something important and he was highly respected in the community.” 

Over the decades, Sullivan became an equally profound source of inspiration. The only black student in his class at Boston University School of Medicine, he would later serve on the faculty from 1966 to 1975. In 1975, he became the founding dean of what became the Morehouse School of Medicine — the first predominantly black medical school opened in the United States in the 20th century. Later, Sullivan was tapped to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he directed the creation of the Office of Minority Programs in the National Institutes of Health’s Office of the Director. 

Sullivan has chaired numerous influential groups and institutions, from the President’s Advisory Council on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the National Health Museum. He is CEO and chair of the Sullivan Alliance, an organization he created in 2005 to increase racial and ethnic minority representation in health care.  

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (b. 1939)

In a pivotal experience while working as an intern at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964, Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD, admitted a baby with a swollen, infected hand. The baby suffered from sickle cell disease, which hadn’t occurred to Gaston until her supervisor suggested the possibility. Gaston quickly committed herself to learning more about it, and eventually became a leading researcher on the disease, which affects millions of people around the world. She became deputy branch chief of the Sickle Cell Disease Branch at the National Institutes of Health, and her groundbreaking 1986 study led to a national sickle cell disease screening program for newborns. Her research showed both the benefits of screening for sickle cell disease at birth and the effectiveness of penicillin to prevent infection from sepsis, which can be fatal in children with the disease. 

In 1990, Gaston became the first black female physician to be appointed director of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care. She was also the second black woman to serve as assistant surgeon general as well as achieve the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. Gaston has been honored with every award that the Public Health Service bestows.

Patricia Era Bath, MD (b. 1942)

Interning in New York City in the 1960s sparked a revelation for Patricia Era Bath, MD. Bath, the first African-American to complete an ophthalmology residency, noticed that rates of blindness and visual impairment were much higher at the Harlem Hospital’s eye clinic, which served many black patients, than at the eye clinic at Columbia University, which mostly served whites. That observation spurred her to conduct a study that found twice the rate of blindness among African-Americans compared with whites. Throughout the rest of her career, Bath explored inequities in vision care. She created the discipline of community ophthalmology, which approaches vision care from the perspectives of community medicine and public health.  

Bath blazed trails in other ways as well, co-founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976, which supports programs that protect, preserve, and restore eyesight. Bath was also the first woman appointed chair of ophthalmology at a U.S. medical school, at the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine in 1983. And she was the first black female physician to receive a medical patent in 1988 for the Laserphaco Probe, a device used in cataract surgery. 

Herbert W. Nickens, MD (1947 — 1999)

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Credit: AAMC Archives

As the first director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1986, Herbert W. Nickens, MD, set the foundation for promoting improved health among racial and ethnic minority populations across the country. When he left the HHS, Nickens moved to the AAMC, where he was the founding vice president of the AAMC Division of Community and Minority Programs, now known as Diversity Policy and Programs. He led Project 3000 by 2000, which the AAMC launched in 1991 to achieve the goal of enrolling 3,000 students from underrepresented minority groups in U.S. medical schools annually by the year 2000. 

“No one in recent memory did more than Herbert Nickens to bridge the painful and persistent diversity gap in medicine," said then-AAMC President Jordan J. Cohen, MD, after Nickens’ death in 1999. The AAMC continues to remember Nickens’ legacy with three namesake awards, honoring outstanding medical students, junior faculty, and individuals who have made significant contributions toward social justice in academic medicine and health care equity.

Alexa Irene Canady, MD (b. 1950)

Alexa Irene Canady, MD, nearly dropped out of college due to a crisis of self-confidence but ultimately went on to achieve dramatic success in medicine. In 1981, she became the first black neurosurgeon in the United States, and just a few years later, she rose to the ranks of chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. 

Canady worked for decades as a successful pediatric neurosurgeon and was ready to retire in Florida in 2001. But she donned her surgical scrubs once again to practice part time at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, where there was a dearth of pediatric neurosurgery services. Canady has been lauded for her patient-centered approach to care, which she said was a boon to her career. “I was worried that because I was a black woman, any practice opportunities would be limited.” But, she noted, “by being patient-centered, the practice growth was exponential.”

Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD, MBA (b. 1956)

Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD, MBA, may be best known for her tenure as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General, during which she served as first chair of the National Prevention Council. The group of 17 federal agencies was responsible for developing the National Prevention Strategy, which outlined plans to improve health and well-being in the United States. 

But it’s not just her work at the highest levels of public health that earned her praise. Long before she was appointed “the nation’s doctor” in 2009, Benjamin worked extensively with rural communities in the South. She is the founder and CEO of BayouClinic in Bayou La Batre, Louisiana, which provides clinical care, social services, and health education to residents of the small Gulf Coast town. Benjamin helped rebuild the clinic several more times, including after damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a fire in 2006. Of the clinic, she said she hopes that she is “making a difference in my community by providing a clinic where patients can come and receive health care with dignity.”