Approximately 13% of the United States of America’s population is Black. But according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5% of physicians in the country are Black. In fact, a 2021 research study at UCLA reveals that the proportion of Black doctors has only increased by 4% since 1900.
The reasons for this are various; one qualitative study of a small group of Black medical students cited financial constraints, lack of role models, insufficient exposure to medicine as a career, little encouragement at home and in schools, and social pressure from peers to pursue other occupations and contributing factors.
Also, the continuing wealth gap between Black and white people might make African-Americans more prone to educational disparities. People with fewer resources may have to combine work and study more frequently than others —something that makes attending med school even more difficult.
But there are also many Black Americans who overcame the challenges, including racism, of their era and made history in the field of medicine. Who are they?
1. James Derham (1762-1802?)
The first person on this list of Black doctors was also the first African American to formally practice medicine in the United States, although he never received a degree.
His name was James Derham (or Durham). He was born a slave in Philadelphia and could never obtain a medical degree, but he learned medicine from three of his masters, who were doctors.
The first one, Dr. John A. Kearsley, Jr., taught him to read and write and then to compound medicines. Derham also learned basic routine medical care from him.
After Kearsley's death, Derham eventually ended up with Dr. George West, a surgeon in the 16th British regiment serving in Pensacola, Florida. He used to treat wounds and fevers and to perform amputations, which Derham learned to do as well.
When the British lost to the Spanish army, the victors took Derham to New Orleans, which was controlled by Spain at the time. There, Derham was sold to Dr. Robert Dow, who eventually helped him open a medical practice in New Orleans. It is unclear whether Dow freed Derham, or whether Derham purchased his freedom, but we know that he was no longer a slave by 1783.
By 1788, Derham had become a very reputable throat specialist and was particularly noted for his treatment of diphtheria and yellow fever. He saved many lives during a yellow fever outbreak in 1789. He was known not only for his skills as a doctor but also because he also treated white patients and those of other racial backgrounds.
He was even recognized by the physician and political leader Benjamin Rush, co-founder of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, who encouraged Derham to return to Philadelphia and open up a practice there.
Derham did eventually move to Philadelphia, but in 1801 his practice was restricted by new regulations barring anyone from practicing medicine without a formal medical degree. In around 1802, Derham either died or moved away. Since his life is not very well documented, it is not clear what happened to him.
2. James McCune Smith (1813-1865)
Dr. Smith is one of the most famous black doctors in history because he was the first Black American to earn a medical degree. He didn’t get his degree in America, though. After he was denied admission to two New York State universities because of his race, abolitionists helped him finance his studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
Smith was a son of a slave but was born after New York passed the emancipation act, gradually freeing all slaves in the state. He received an education at the African Free School, where he was a star pupil and an ardent abolitionist. When he was refused admission to New York medical schools because of his race, benefactors raised funds, so he could attend the University of Glasgow.
After completing his residency in Paris, Smith returned to the U.S. in 1837 and established a medical practice at 55 West Broadway, where he also opened the first black-owned pharmacy in the United States. He treated both Black and white patients, men and women. He was a prominent abolitionist and pioneered the use of statistical analysis to refute government claims that Blacks were less intelligent than whites.
In 1844, Smith submitted “On the Influence of Opium upon the Catamenial Functions” to the New York Journal of Medicine. This is the first publication by a Black American in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Starting in 1846, he served as the medical director of the Colored Orphan Asylum, a position he assumed after accusing the previous medical director of racism. He made great improvements in medical care there, including vaccinating children with the smallpox vaccine. He worked there until 1863 when the orphan asylum was destroyed during the New York City draft riots.
3. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
Rebecca Lee Crumpler is the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the US. After caring for sick people in her town in Pennsylvania, Crumpler moved to Massachusetts and became a nurse.
Black people weren’t usually admitted to med schools, but physicians were very needed at the times of the American Civil War, and Crumpler, who was a nurse, was recommended by her supervisor for a place at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, the first in the country to train women M.D.s.
After graduating in 1864, she mainly took care of Black women and children living in poverty. She also worked for Freedmen's Bureau, treating former slaves that were rejected as patients by white doctors.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was not only subject to racism but also to sexism. In disbelief of her talent, some male doctors wouldn’t take into account her medical opinions or approve her prescriptions. Crumpler often treated people regardless of whether they could pay.
In spite of all this, she managed to continue practicing medicine and even published one of the first medical books in America’s history: A Book of Medical Discourses (1883). The book contains valuable medical advice on preserving women’s and children’s health.
4. Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) and Myra Adele Logan (1908-1977)
After working as an apprentice with a surgeon, Daniel Hale Williams studied at Chicago Medical College, with funds provided by abolitionist Mary Jane Richardson Jones. He graduated in 1883 and set up his own practice on Chicago’s South Side. However, because of his race, he wasn’t allowed to work at a hospital. Instead, in 1891, he founded the first Black-owned hospital and training school, the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the nation’s first hospital with a nursing and intern program that had a racially integrated staff.
Two years later, he became one of the first people, and the first African-American, to perform open-heart surgery successfully. He was later appointed surgeon-in-chief at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., which treated former slaves.
In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for Black medical practitioners, as the American Medical Association did not allow African-American membership. By 1913, he was the only Black doctor in the American College of Surgeons.
The first Black woman who performed an open-heart surgery successfully did it so many years later —in 1943.
Myra Adele Logan graduated from New York Medical College in 1933 and became an associate surgeon at Harlem Hospital. Ten years later, she became the first woman to perform open-heart surgery. She was also the first African American woman elected a fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Her other achievements included the development of the antibiotic Aureomycin, and work on early detection and treatment of breast cancer.
5. Solomon Carter Fuller (1872-1953)
Fuller is the first Black psychiatrist and neuropathologist in the US. He was born in Liberia but moved to the US to study at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, a historically Black Christian college. He later studied at Long Island College Medical School and got his MD in 1897 at Boston University School of Medicine.
He did his post-graduate studies at the University of Munich (Germany), where he researched pathology and specifically neuropathology. In 1903 Fuller was one of the five foreign students chosen by Alois Alzheimer to conduct research at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Munich. Working alongside Alzheimer, he helped discover biomarkers of what is now known as Alzheimer’s disease.
On his return to the US, he worked as an associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine until he quit due to racial inequalities. He practiced medicine privately until he went blind in 1944.
6. Louis T. Wright (1891-1952) and Jane C. Wright (1919-2013)
Wright was an African-American surgeon, the first one in a non-segregated hospital in New York. He was also a civil rights activist and served as chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for about 20 years.
A son of former slaves, Wright earned a medical degree from Harvard University Medical School in 1915, graduating fourth in his class. He served as a physician and Captain in the Army Medical Corps during World War I, where he applied the smallpox vaccine to soldiers using the intradermal method —which was not common at the time. After the war, he moved to New York City, and in 1919, he became the first African American appointed to the surgical staff at Harlem Hospital.
He worked with Myra Logan on antibiotics research and founded Harlem Hospital’s cancer research center, where they both worked to advance the study and practice of chemotherapy.
Encouraged by her father to take up medicine, Wright's daughter, Jane C. Wright, graduated from the New York Medical School at the top of her class. As a doctor, she investigated and developed new anti-cancer agents and chemotherapy techniques. She was the first to identify that the drug methotrexate could be used to treat a range of solid tumors and championed the development of combination chemotherapy. During her career, Wright published more than 100 research papers on chemotherapy.
In 1964, she was the only female co-founder of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In 1967, she was the highest-ranking Black woman in an American medical center, and in 1971, she became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society.
7. Patricia Bath (1942-2019)
Bath was a physician who specialized in ophthalmology and devoted her life to preventing blindness. She was the first Black person to serve a residency for that specialty at New York University and the first Black woman to work as a surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center.
But she is mainly known for having invented the laser cataract surgery tool under the patent “Laserphaco Probe” in 1988. She was also the first Black woman to hold a medical patent.
There are many other Black medical pioneers in history. We can mention:
- William Augustus Hinton, the first Black professor at Harvard University, who was also the inventor of the Hinton test, a very effective test for syphilis;
- Charles R. Drew, the first Black person with an MD from Columbia University. He studied blood preservation techniques that saved thousands of lives during World War II and developed America's first large-scale blood banks;
- Marilyn Hughes Gaston, a Black female doctor from Ohio, discovered that early testing for sickle cell anemia could reduce complications from this illness in children. She introduced a prophylaxis treatment with oral penicillin for 4-months-old babies to prevent sickle cell infections later in life.
Perhaps these pioneers, and others like them, will inspire the next generation of Black medical professionals to emulate their achievements.