Black History Month: Black Female Health Care Heroes

For those who are not aware, my day job is in health care. This is an article I was asked to write by our Women in Leadership program.

February is Black History Month, so it is only appropriate that we reflect upon the tremendous—and often overlooked—contributions of Black women and men in health care, both within our company and in the United States in general. While doing so, we must also acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the inexcusable discrimination and injustice perpetrated upon our Black brothers and sisters, a pain that continues to this day. As we reflect, let us pray for understanding, unity and love, that our country may become a haven of tolerance for all and celebrate both our differences and our similarities as children of God, equally worthy of respect and dignity.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (First Black Female Doctor in the U.S.)
Rebecca was born in Delaware in 1831 and was raised by her aunt, who frequently cared for sick neighbors. This experience is what influenced her to become a healer herself. At the time there was no formal schooling for nurses, so Rebecca’s training was all on the job. She worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, from 1852-1860, when she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston. In 1864, she became the first Black American female to earn a medical degree.

(You may see references to a woman named Rebecca Cole holding this distinction, one for which she was given credit for many years. Because she received her degree in 1867, she is now considered the second Black American woman to hold a medical degree.)

Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston until the Civil War ended and she moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she cared for “a population of over 30,000 colored” in her own estimation. Despite experiencing terrible racism, she worked with other black physicians and the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, housing, medical care, education and legal assistance to former slaves.

Sometime later she moved back to Boston. In 1883, she published Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by a Black American.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (First Black Nurse Licensed in the U.S.)
Mary was born in 1845 in Boston to freed slaves who had moved there from North Carolina. She received a superb education at Phillips School in Boston, which later became one of the first integrated schools in the country. By the time she was a teenager, she felt a calling to become a nurse. She found employment at New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was run completely by women and provided care only to women and children. She worked there for the next 15 years in roles as varied as janitor, cook, washer woman and nurse’s aide.

In 1878, Mary was accepted into a 16-month nursing training program at the hospital. During this program she worked 16-hour shifts attending lectures and lessons led by doctors in the hospital. She was also taught bedside procedures by experienced nurses. The students earned a weekly wage ranging from $1-$4. The course work was so rigorous that out of a class of 42 students, only four graduated, including Mary, in 1879.

After receiving her diploma, Mary found that Black public nurses faced harsh discrimination, and so went into private care nursing in the homes of rich White families on the East coast. She was often treated like a servant instead of a professional and thus worked to distance herself from the household staff. She became renowned for her professionalism, efficiency, patience and bedside manner, a reputation that spread across the United States.

Mary wanted more than anything to improve the reputation of Black nurses across the country. In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). This group was overwhelmingly White and not very friendly toward Black nurses, so Mary cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908.

After her death in 1926, Mary was recognized with numerous honors. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award, which is still given today to nurses who promote integration in nursing. Mary was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1993.

Opaline Wadkins (Nurse and Integration Pioneer)
Opaline Wadkins’ career began in 1938 when she was hired by the Texas Department of Public Health to recruit Black nurses. Two years later she moved to Oklahoma City where she lobbied for the rights of Black patients. It took five years, but in 1945 Opaline finally convinced the city to found its first hospital to treat Black patients, University Hospital South Ward, and establish a school to train Black nurses. Between 1949 and 1953 she trained over 200 Black LPNs.

In 1954, Opaline became the first Black nursing supervisor at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. While working for there, she was also studying for her master’s degree in public health. She was especially concerned about the lack of access young Black people had to information about their health. When she graduated, Opaline became the first Black person to earn a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Oklahoma.

With her passion for public health, she started new initiatives to provide care to minorities living in Oklahoma. One of her most successful programs was a health and well-baby care initiative for Native Americans which effectively decreased infant mortality by 50%. She also worked with local churches to provide health and diabetic clinics to Black patients living in Oklahoma City and was instrumental in desegregating the University of Oklahoma College of Nursing.

Opaline retired in 1976. The governor of Oklahoma declared Nov. 14 as Opaline Wadkins Day. She was later honored by the VA Hospital Nursing Service and the Oklahoma Public Health Association. In 1993, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 2000 at her home in Oklahoma City.

Other Notable Black People in Medical History:

  • In 1721, a slaved named Onesimus described the African method of inoculation against smallpox to Cotton Mather. The technique was used to protect soldiers during the Revolutionary War and was perfected in the 1790s by British doctor Edward Jenner. (To learn more about this, check out The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell.)
  • Born into slavery, Dr. James Durham bought his freedom in 1762. He then started his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first Black doctor in the United States.
  • In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first Black American to receive a medical degree (from the Glasgow Medical School in Scotland) and opened the first pharmacy in the US owned and operated by a person of color.
  • In 1847, David Jones Peck became the first Black person to graduate from a medical school in the United States, Rush Medical College, in Chicago, Illinois.
  • In 1862, former slave Susie Baker (later known as Susie King Taylor) became the first Black U.S. Army nurse during the Civil War.
  • In 1891, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the first black-owned hospital in America, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Two years later he performed the first successful open-heart surgery. In 1897 he founded the National Medical Association because Black people were denied membership in the American Medical Association. He was also a charter member of the
    American College of Surgeons in 1913 and was the first and only Black member for many years.
  • In 1912, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist, published the first comprehensive clinical review of all Alzheimer’s cases reported to date. He was also the first to translate into English much of Alois Alzheimer’s work on the disease that bears his name.
  • In 1921 – Dr. Meta L. Christy became the world’s first Black osteopathic physician after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
  • In 1936, Dr. William Augustus Hinton was the first Black American physician to publish a textbook, Syphilis and Its Treatment.
  • In 1950, Dr. Helen O. Dickens became the first Black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.
  • In 1978, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall was elected the first Black president of the American Cancer Society.
  • In 1981, Alexa Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in the U.S.
    and Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first Black female astronaut in NASA history. In 1992 she became the first Black woman in space, where she researched various vaccines and conducted experiments onboard the shuttle Endeavour.
  • In 1991, Dr. Vivian Pinn became the first woman and the first Black person to hold the title of Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health.
  • In 1993, Dr. Edward S. Cooper became the first Black person elected as National President of the American Heart Association and Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first Black person to be appointed as U.S. Surgeon General.
  • In 1995, Dr. Lonnie Bristow became the first Black President of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its 148-year history.
  • In 2002, Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps became the first Black woman to serve as President of the American Medical Women’s Association.
  • In 2018, Dr. Patrice Harris became the first Black woman President-Elect of the country’s largest physician organization, the AMA.

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