Historical African American Doctors

In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating African American Doctors who pioneered and significantly improved medicine in America.

Dr. James McCune Smith was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree. 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.

He, in collaboration with Harvard-educated physician and statistician Edward Jarvis, pioneered the use of medically based statistics to refute notions of African-American inferiority, and he exposed scientific flaws in the racially biased U.S. Census of 1840.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African-American woman Physician in the United States. Rebecca was the New England Female Medical College’s only African-American graduate.

She worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, treating formerly enslaved people. Crumpler also published one of the first medical books written by an African American. The book is dedicated “to mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the first black-owned hospital in America and the first medical facility to have an interracial staff. He was also one of the first physicians to successfully complete pericardial surgery on a patient. Williams later became chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital.

In 1895, he helped to organize the National Medical Association for black professionals, who were barred from the American Medical Association.

Dr. Charles Richard Drew was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. Known as the “father of blood banking,” Drew’s research helped him establish the first large-scale blood banks and standardized procedures for long-term blood preservation and storage. These procedures were adopted by the American Red Cross.

Drew served as Head of the Department of Surgery and Chief of Surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital. His mission was to “train young African American surgeons who would meet the most rigorous standards in any surgical specialty” and “place them in strategic positions throughout the country where they could, in turn, nurture the tradition of excellence.”

Dr. Myra Adele Logan was the first woman to perform open-heart surgery. She was also the first African American woman to become a fellow of the American College of Medical Surgeons.

Dr. Logan’s other achievements include the development of antibiotics, including Aureomycin; work on early detection and treatment of breast cancer; and efforts to develop x-ray processes to more accurately detect differences in tissue density, allowing tumors to be discovered earlier.

Dr. Alexa Irene Canady was the first African-American woman neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981. In 1975, Canady was the first African American woman to be accepted as a surgical intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Later on, in life, she became the Chief of Neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Canady retired from her position in 2001 and relocated to Florida with her husband. Her retirement was short-lived, however, when she learned there were no pediatric neurosurgeons in her immediate area and began to practice part-time at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital.

Canady officially retired from practicing medicine a second time in 2012. She continues to be an advocate for encouraging young women to pursue careers in medicine and neurosurgery.

Dr. Patricia Bath was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973. Two years later, she became the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.

In 1976, Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that “eyesight is a basic human right.” In 1986, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, improving treatment for cataract patients. She patented the device in 1988, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

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