NHC Celebrates Health Care Pioneers this Black History Month

By: Omar A. Escontrías, DrPH, MPH, Senior Vice President, Equity, Research & Programs

Black History Month honors and celebrates the life, culture, and trailblazing contributions of African Americans in the United States. In defiance of systemic, racial, and discriminatory policies and practices, African Americans have pioneered and revolutionized the field of medicine and health care. In honor of Black History Month, here are five notable African Americans whose contributions to science and medicine have a long-lasting impact.

James McCune Smith, MD
Despite being born into slavery in 1813, Dr. Smith became the first African American to earn a medical degree in 1837.[1] Given the racist admission practices and the limited number of medical schools in the U.S., Smith enrolled at the University of Glasgow Medical School. Among his many accomplishments include being the first black physician to operate and own a pharmacy and become a prolific writer in medical journals. It was through his writing, statistical analysis, and medicine that Dr. Smith challenged the atrocities conducted in the name of science to African Americans. As an abolitionist, Dr. Smith fought to end slavery until his death in 1865. He paved the way for the future of black physicians.

Daniel Hale Williams, MD
Following on the footsteps of Dr. Smith, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first black physicians to perform open heart surgery.[2] Dr. Williams also opened the first Black-owned and desegrated hospital in Chicago. As a surgeon, Williams was the first African American to be inducted to the American College of Surgeons and subsequently founding a mentorship program at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC.

Percy Lavon Julian, PhD[3]
Grandson to enslaved people, Julian was a chemist who advanced the field of chemical synthesis to produce steroids from plant compounds. Steroids are the building block of many hormones. Through his science, Dr. Julian was successful in extracting stigmasterol from the calabar bean, which later would be converted to progesterone, an important sex hormone in pregnancy.

Patricia E. Bath, MD4 
Dr. Patricia E. Bath was a well-renowned domestic and global scientist, inventor, researcher, and physician. Earning her medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine, as an ophthalmologist, her significant work to fight blindness and eye disease led to her to invent one of the most revolutionary medical techniques used to date. In 1986, Dr. Bath invented the laserphaco, a new device and technique used for cataract surgery. Dr. Bath was the first woman to be chair of the ophthalmology residency program at Drew-UCLA, and in the U.S. As one of the founders of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, Bath travelled internationally to industrial and developing countries to combat ophthalmic disparities.

Kizzmekia S. Corbett, PhD 
The COVID-19 pandemic upended the world in 2020. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s5 immunology expertise helped to turn the corner on the pandemic. During her tenure at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Corbett and her team propelled the deployment of the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine. In addition to her research on COVID-19, Dr. Corbett’s current interest in designing a universal influenza vaccine is slated to undergo Phase 1 clinical trials. Dr. Corbett earned her PhD in microbiology and immunology in 2014 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Corbett is a staunch advocate for STEM education in historically underserved communities. Currently, Dr. Corbett is an Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

[1] Association of American Medical Colleges. Celebrating 10 African-American Medical Pioneers. At: https://www.aamc.org/news/celebrating-10-african-american-medical-pioneers#:~:text=James%20McCune%20Smith%2C%20MD%20(1813%20%E2%80%94%201865)&text=In%201837%2C%20he%20became%20the,from%20his%20only%20groundbreaking%20accomplishment.

[2] American Heart Association. The Legacy of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a heart surgery pioneer.  At: https://www.heart.org/en/news/2022/02/16/the-legacy-of-dr-daniel-hale-williams-a-heart-surgery-pioneer.

[3] Science History Institute Museum and Library. Percy Lavon Julian. At: https://www.sciencehistory.org/education/scientific-biographies/percy-lavon-julian/ 

[4] National Library of Medicine. Dr. Patricia E. Bath. At: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_26.html.

[5] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Kizzmekia S. Corgett-Halaire. At: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/profile/kizzmekia-s-corbett/.