Celebrating Black History in Medicine

Black History Month is a celebration recognizing the central roles of blacks in US history. Throughout February, Becker shared the stories of black doctors and nurses who have changed the course of medicine through their inventions and firsts.

In case you missed our posts on their stories, here is a list:

1. Dr. Alexa Irene Canady: America’s first black female neurosurgeon

Dr. Alexa Canady
Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press/Hugh Grannum

Dr. Canady almost dropped out of college due to a lack of self-confidence. But, when she heard of a chance to win a minority scholarship in medicine, her confidence was rekindled. She fell in love with medicine after attending a summer program for minority students at the University of Michigan her junior year.

2. Mary Eliza MahoneyAmerica’s first black registered nurse

Mary Eliza Mahoney
Photo courtesy of public record.

Mahoney was an inspiration to both nurses and patients. She went on to co-establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908, an organization that created an award in her honor to recognize those who advanced the welfare of minority groups in nursing.

3. Dr. Charles DeWitt WattsThe first black certified surgeon in North Carolina

Dr. Charles DeWitt Watts
Photo courtesy of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina

Among countless other accomplishments, Dr. Watts broke racial barriers when he pushed for the certification of black medical students and advocated for quality healthcare access for blacks in Durham. As chief of surgery at Lincoln Hospital, one of the only hospitals in America that allowed black doctors to perform surgery, he lobbied the state medical board to recognize black interns and residents for certification.

4. General Hazel Johnson-Brown: The first black woman to be brigadier general and hold command of the Army Nurse Corps

Hazel Johnson-Brown
Photo courtesy of the Washington Post

General Johnson-Brown always wanted to be a nurse, but racial prejudice always created obstacles. According to Washington Post, the director of nursing at her local hospital told the recent high school graduate, “we’ve never had a black person in our program, and we never will.” The woman who was turned away from her first nursing program solely due to the color of her skin went on to become the director of the Army’s Walter Reed Institute of Nursing and later served as the brigadier general – a senior rank in the armed forces.

5. Dr. Patricia E. Bath: The first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the US and a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of blindness

Dr. Patricia Bath.
Photo courtesy of Scholastic.

As a young intern, Dr. Bath observed patients at eye clinics in her local Harlem neighborhood and at Manhattan’s Columbia. She quickly realized that there was a higher prevalence of blindness among blacks due to a lack of access to ophthalmic care. She proposed a completely new discipline – community ophthalmology – a term that is now operative worldwide. After serving as the first female faculty member of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, she became the first African-American female physician to receive a medical patent with her Laserphaco Probe, which improves cataract treatment.

6. Dr. Lillian Holland Harvey: The developer of Alabama’s first baccalaureate degree in nursing at Tuskegee University

Dr. Lillian Holland Harvey
Photo courtesy of Tuskegee University

Her graduates would forever credit her with having a powerful influence on their lives through encouraging them to advance their education, be involved in their communities, and balance work with family.

7. Dr. Randolph Rasch, PhD, FNP, RN: A man of many firsts!

Randolph F. R. Rasch, PhD, RN, FNP
Photo courtesy of Michigan State University College of Nursing

Dr. Rasch is the first black male nurse to graduate from the nursing program at Andrews University, the first black male public health nurse in the state of Michigan, the first male African American to complete an MSN as a family nurse practitioner, and the first African American man to earn a PhD in nursing.

There are countless African Americans with accomplishments in medicine – too many to list in this article. However, we hope that you acknowledge their everyday importance in the field as you continue your journey as a medical or nursing student! Thank you to these and many other African Americans for blazing the trail in healthcare!