Black History Month - Healthcare Innovators Part One

Black healthcare professionals have made countless improvements to the sector, with many of their innovations being adapted around the world!

Black History Month - Healthcare Innovators Part One

From West Park Healthcare Centre's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Collaborative

Black healthcare professionals have made countless improvements to the sector, with many of their innovations being adapted around the world! Many medical discoveries and advancements in health care throughout history can be credited to a member of the Black community. What is especially remarkable about so many of the achievements mentioned below is that they were done in the face of blatant racism and without many of the privileges awarded to their white counterparts. Below we discuss just five of these champions of health care.

Henrietta Vinton Davis (1860-1941)
There’s no question Henrietta Vinton Davis achieved a lot in her lifetime. To start, she became the first Black woman employed at the Office of the Recorder of Deeds in Washington D.C., where she worked as an assistant to Frederick Douglass. In 1883 she kick-started a career in drama as an elocutionist and even co-wrote the play Our Old Kentucky Home.

By the age of 60, she turned her ambition toward health care. Ms. Davis founded the Black Cross Nurses (BCN), an auxiliary of the UNIA, in Philadelphia. The BCN was modelled after the Red Cross and local chapters were established with a matron, head nurse, secretary, and treasurer to provide health services and hygiene education to Black members of the community. The BCN was formed because few programs at the time would admit Black people into nursing training and many health facilities provided unequal care to Black patients. BCN divisions spread throughout the United States and Canada, including Toronto!

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois accomplished many things throughout his life as a brilliant scholar and a relentless activist. The renowned sociologist was born in Massachusetts in 1868, just three years after slavery was officially abolished in every state in the United States.

Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

"William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois: 1904 ca" by Washington Area Spark is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

He became the first Black man to earn a PhD from Harvard University in 1895 and published 21 books and over 100 essays during his lifetime. Dr. Du Bois was among the first to note the health disparities between Black people compared to white people in the U.S. stemmed from social conditions and not from inherent racial traits. He used census reports, statistics, and insurance-company records to link the legacy of slavery and the racism of American society to the poor health of Black people.

Solomon Carter Fuller (1872-1953)
Solomon Carter Fuller was born in Liberia but he ventured to the U.S. to earn a medical degree at Boston University. Shortly after he became the first African-American psychiatrist.

Dr. Fuller was critical to Alzheimer’s disease research. He studied the traits of dementia with psychiatrist and neuropathologist Dr. Alois Alzheimer in Germany. Dr. Fuller conducted numerous autopsies, which allowed him to identify the significance of neurofibrillary tangles and miliary plaques in the brains of deceased people who had dementia. He reported on the significance of these findings five months before Dr. Alzheimer did, and ultimately his research helped to confirm that Alzheimer’s was a physical disease of the brain, not a result of insanity.

Despite his achievements, Dr. Fuller still faced blatant discrimination. He was a professor at Boston University, yet he was paid less than his white colleagues.

May Edward Chinn (1896-1980)
Dr. May Edward Chinn, like all other Black physicians in the 1930s and ‘40s in New York, was barred from any association with the city’s hospitals. She also had a deep interest in learning about cancer, but when she sought research information about her patients from the city’s hospital clinics they refused. Neither of those things stopped her.

Dr. Chinn broke down barriers to become the first African-American woman to intern at Harlem Hospital and to be granted hospital privileges.

She also decided to learn about cancer by accompanying her patients to their clinic appointments to understand biopsy techniques. Her cancer research helped to develop a protocol for cancer probability predictions using family medical history.

Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950)
Dr. Charles Richard Drew, otherwise known as “The Father of the Blood Bank,” has had an enormous hand in saving countless lives.

After Dr. Drew set his sights on medical school, he packed his belongings and moved from the U.S. to Canada where he studied at McGill University in Montreal. During a surgical residency at Montreal Hospital, he became fascinated by transfusion medicine. He aspired to continue training in transfusion therapy at the Mayo Clinic, but racial prejudices at major American medical centres barred Black scholars from their practices.

Despite this, he became a renowned surgeon who discovered a long-term method for storing blood plasma. Dr. Drew’s complex procedures and standards for collecting, processing and storing blood led to an appointment as head of the Blood for Britain Project. The Project involved transporting critical supplies of blood and plasma to Great Britain while it was under attack by Germany during the Second World War.

For Part II of Five Healthcare Innovators You Should Know visit here