Famous Black Doctors & Nurses Who Made History

Famous Black Doctors & Nurses Who Made History

Posted on Feb 28, 2023

As we celebrate Black History Month 2023, it is important to acknowledge the significant contributions that black doctors and nurses have made to the healthcare industry. Despite facing immense barriers, these trailblazers have played a vital role in shaping the healthcare system that we know today. Join us as we celebrate the stories of these pioneering black physicians and nurses in history who fought to be heard, respected, and included, and in doing so, paved the way for many others to follow. Let us honor and recognize the contributions of these historical figures who have challenged the injustices of their time and changed the face of medicine in America.

6 Famous Black Doctors & Their Incredible Achievements

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831 — 1895)

Rebecca Lee Crumpler is one of the most celebrated black doctors in the United States. In 1864, she became the first black woman to earn an MD degree in the country. She graduated from the New England Female Medical College in Boston, where she was the only black graduate. After completing her degree, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she joined other black doctors to care for former slaves under the Freedmen’s Bureau. Despite facing sexism and harassment, she persisted in her work, offering treatment to children in her home and practicing outside.

Crumpler’s most significant contribution was her book, A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts, published in 1883. It addressed issues related to women’s and children’s health and was aimed at “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” The book’s main objective was to encourage better health practices and to give advice on common illnesses. The book was an essential resource for African Americans, as they were often excluded from white hospitals and medical centers. Overall, Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s contribution to the medical field is an inspiration to black women pursuing careers in medicine.

James McCune Smith, MD (1813 — 1865)

James McCune Smith was an American physician, apothecary, and abolitionist. He is best known for being the first African American to receive a medical degree in the United States, graduating from the University of Glasgow Medical School in 1837. As a writer, Smith used his talent to debunk shoddy science, including racist notions of African Americans. He challenged these notions in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, becoming the first black physician to be published in U.S. medical journals.

Smith’s legacy extends beyond his medical contributions. He was a staunch abolitionist, working alongside prominent figures such as Frederick Douglass, contributing to Douglass’ newspaper, and writing the introduction to his book, My Bondage and My Freedom. As a leading figure in the African American community, James McCune Smith’s contributions to medicine and advocacy for social justice paved the way for future generations.

Leonidas Harris Berry, MD (1902 — 1995)

Leonidas Harris Berry was a renowned gastroenterologist and civil rights activist. He faced racial discrimination in the workplace, being the first black doctor on staff at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, in 1946. However, he persisted in his efforts, fighting for an attending position for years. 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.

Berry’s dedication to equity extended beyond the clinical setting. He was active in a civil rights group called the United Front, which 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. Leonidas Harris Berry’s legacy in medicine and social justice is an inspiration to all who seek equality.

Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904 — 1950)

Charles Richard Drew is known as the “father of blood banking” and was a pioneer in blood preservation techniques. He led the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and created mobile blood donation stations that are now known as bloodmobiles. His doctoral research explored best practices for banking and transfusions, leading to the first large-scale blood banks.

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (b. 1939)

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD, was a pediatrician who worked to promote equitable access to healthcare for underserved communities. She is perhaps best known for her work on sickle cell anemia. In the 1970s, Gaston discovered that many newborns with sickle cell disease were not being identified through traditional screening methods. She developed a new screening protocol that is now used worldwide, which has helped to save countless lives. She also worked to increase awareness of the disease and advocated for better care for patients.

Gaston went on to lead the Bureau of Primary Health Care at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where she expanded access to primary care for underserved populations. She also founded the Gaston and Porter Health Improvement Center, which provides care and health education to underserved communities in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Gaston’s work has earned her numerous accolades, including the National Medical Association’s Practitioner of the Year award and the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Benjamin Carson, MD (b. 1951)

Benjamin Carson, MD, is a pediatric neurosurgeon who made history in 1987 by successfully separating conjoined twins who were joined at the head. The operation took more than 22 hours and involved a team of more than 70 medical professionals. The twins, Patrick and Benjamin Binder, went on to live normal, healthy lives.

Carson went on to become the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he continued to break new ground in the field. He was the first surgeon to successfully separate type-2 vertical craniopagus twins, and he was also the first to perform a successful intrauterine surgery to remove a brain tumor.

5 Famous Black Nurses Who Paved the Way for Future Generations

famous black nurses

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mary Eliza Mahoney was a pioneer in the nursing profession, becoming the first Black nurse to graduate from nursing school and receive a professional nursing license in the United States. Mahoney was employed at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, where she worked as a janitor, cook, and nurse’s aide before she entered the nursing program. She graduated 16 months later and became a champion for increased access to nursing education and fought against discrimination throughout her career. Mahoney’s legacy continues to inspire future generations of Black nurses to pursue their dreams and to fight for equality in the nursing profession.

Adah Belle Thoms (1879-1943)

Adah Belle Thoms was a trailblazer who worked as the supervising surgical nurse and acting director of Lincoln Hospital in New York City from 1906-1923. Despite being denied the title of director due to her race, she never gave up on her mission to fight for the full integration of Black women into the nursing profession. Thoms organized and hosted the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. The organization’s mission was to fight for equality in education, pay, and opportunities. Thoms also lobbied for the American Red Cross and the Army Nurse Corps to allow Black nurses into their ranks during both World Wars. Her legacy of fighting for justice and equality continues to inspire Black nurses today.

Estelle Massey Osborne (1901-1981)

Estelle Massey Osborne was a pioneer and leader in education and administrative nursing roles during a time when women of color were largely prohibited from holding top positions. Osborne faced significant obstacles in her nursing career. When she entered nursing school, only 14 of the nation’s 1,300 schools for nursing were open to Black applicants. Despite this, she continued her education and became the first Black nurse to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University. Osborne played a significant role in lifting the color ban on nurses in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Her determination and commitment to equal opportunities for Black nurses helped pave the way for future generations.

Della H. Raney (1912-1987)

Della Raney was a North Carolina nurse who persisted in her efforts to serve her country during World War II. Despite being rejected multiple times due to her race, she continued to apply to the Army Nurse Corps. Her persistence paid off, and she became the first Black nurse accepted to the Army Nurse Corps, earning a commission as 2nd lieutenant. Due to segregation in the ranks, Raney could only care for Black service members. During her distinguished military career, she served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield and Fort Huachuca, home of the famed Buffalo Soldiers. Her legacy of persistence and service continues to inspire Black nurses in the military today.

Hazel Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)

Hazel Johnson-Brown was a pioneering military nurse who broke barriers in the Army. In 1979, the Army nominated her to become the 16th chief of the Army Nurse Corps with an accompanying promotion to brigadier general. Johnson-Brown was the first Black woman appointed to these posts. Following her retirement, she helped nursing students advance their careers as a professor of nursing at Georgetown University and George Mason University. Johnson-Brown’s legacy of breaking down barriers and advancing opportunities for Black nurses continues to inspire future generations.