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Black Trailblazers in Healthcare

February 19, 2021

Learn the names and accomplishments of some of the most impactful Black doctors, nurses, and innovators in U.S. history.

Black individuals have contributed vital accomplishments our medical community and the healthcare system — often overcoming great hurdles to do so.

Their legacy drives those who continue in the field today, like Anthem National Medical Director Dr. Melissa Moseberry. “As we celebrate Black History Month, I’m inspired by the individuals from the community who have made an impact in healthcare,” she says.

To honor Black History Month, here are some of the Black doctors, nurses, and innovators who have changed healthcare in a positive way:

Black Americans have been a part of crucial healthcare advancements even before the United States became a country. An enslaved African named Onesimus saved countless lives in the early 1700s by sharing the African practice of inoculating against smallpox, long before Edward Jenner became famous for creating a smallpox vaccine. (Two centuries later, in 1917, a Black doctor and antibiotic pioneer named Louis T. Wright would develop the intradermal injection for vaccinating against smallpox.)

Another man born into slavery made his mark on the medical world, becoming America’s first Black doctor. In 1783, Dr. James Durham bought his freedom and began to practice medicine in New Orleans using the medical knowledge he gained from his slaveholders, who were doctors. Although the city restricted his practice because he lacked a formal medical degree, Durham impressed many of the country’s foremost physicians due to his success in treating diseases like diphtheria and yellow fever.

The first Black U.S. Army nurse was also a woman born into slavery. Susie King Taylor (born Susie Baker) served as a nurse during the Civil War and later helped organize a branch of the Woman’s Relief Corps.

In 1893, a Chicago physician named Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful human heart operation. His patient had been stabbed in the chest but, thanks to Williams, went on to live for decades more.

Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller is considered the country’s first Black psychiatrist. He served as a graduate research assistant to Alois Alzheimer (the man for whom the disease is named) in Germany in 1904. Afterward, Fuller continued to research degenerative brain disorders, translated Alois Alzheimer’s work into English, and was widely published as an expert in Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1940, Dr. Charles R. Drew transformed blood donations with his thesis, "Banked Blood." It explored his discovery that plasma could replace whole blood transfusions.

Dr. Louis Wade Sullivan not only was a doctor himself, but also expanded access to medical education for other Black Americans in the 1970s. He was the founding dean and president of Morehouse School of Medicine as well as the Secretary of the Dept. of Health & Human Services under the George H. W. Bush Administration. While working at the White House, he helped create the Office of Minority Programs in the National Institutes of Health’s Office of the Director.

Before serving major roles in government, Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston led groundbreaking studies of sickle-cell disease in the 1980s. Because of her work, a nationwide screening program was developed to test newborns and allow for immediate treatment.

The first Black woman in space was Dr. Mae C. Jemison in 1992. Jemison was also NASA’s first Black female astronaut, earning one of 15 spots out of the 2,000 applicants in her year. Before that, Jemison graduated from Cornell University Medical School. She worked in private practice and as a teaching research physician in the Peace Corps, traveling to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

In 1998, Dr. David Satcher became the 16th U.S. Surgeon General. Before that, he served as the Director of the Centers for Disease Control, where he increased immunization rates in U.S. children from only 55% to 78%.

Last year in 2020, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, became a co-chair for then-President-Elect Joe Biden’s Coronavirus Task Force Advisory Board, after advising the governor of Connecticut on pandemic strategy.

These names represent a small number of the Black Americans who have impacted the healthcare world. They and their fellow trailblazers have and will continue to transform medicine, saving lives.