Although American women couldn’t join the military on a permanent basis until 1948, they had been enlisting since Loretta Walsh became the first woman allowed to serve in any branch of the military in 1917. This month, we’re introducing you to Annie G. Fox, an Army nurse who was the first woman to receive the Purple Heart.
Annie Gayton Fox was born on Aug. 4, 1893, in East Pubnico, Nova Scotia, in Canada to Annie and Charles Fox, a doctor. Nothing is known of her life before 1918, when she enlisted to serve in the Army Nurse Corps in World War I or why she chose to do so. After her tour ended on July 14, 1920, she was based in New York, then Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and Fort Mason in San Diego. Annie was then transferred to the Philippines where she served at Camp John Hay in Benguet and then in Manilla.
In 1940, she returned to the United States, where she was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, she passed her exam to become Chief Nurse, was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and was transferred to Hickam Air Field Station Hospital, a small 30-bed hospital with six nurses.
Less than a month later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Victims were sent to hospitals all over the island, including Hickam, where Annie was in charge. The noise of torpedoes, bombs, machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns was deafening and bombs fell all around the hospital, one leaving a 30-foot crater 20 feet from the hospital and another exploded across the street. Hospital staff, wearing gas masks and helmets, reported trying to save the wounded while enemy aircraft flew so close overhead that they could see the pilots conversing.
Annie not only cared for the wounded and assisted in surgery during the attack, but also organized civilian volunteers to provide assistance and make bandages. For her “outstanding performance of duty and meritorious acts of extraordinary fidelity” during this ordeal she was awarded the Purple Heart on Oct. 26, 1942, becoming the first woman to receive it. (At this time, recipients were not required to have been seriously wounded to receive this honor.)
The citation describes what Annie experienced and how she reacted:
“During the attack, Lieutenant Fox, in an exemplary manner, performed her duties as head Nurse of the Station Hospital… in addition she administered anesthesia to patients during the heaviest part of the bombardment, assisted in dressing the wounded, taught civilian volunteer nurses to make dressings, and worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency, and her fine example of calmness, courage and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact….”
Two years later, the military added the stipulation that recipients of the Purple Heart had to sustain wounds during enemy action. As a result, on Oct. 6, 1944, Annie, now a Captain, was given a Bronze Star in lieu of her Purple Heart. The Bronze Star Medal is “awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.”
After the war, Annie continued her military career in San Francisco, and then as Assistant to the Principal Chief Nurse at Camp Phillips, Kansas, where she was promoted to Major. She retired from active duty on Dec. 15, 1945, two years before President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law, allowing women to serve as full members of all branches of the Armed Forces.
Annie eventually moved to San Diego to be with two of her sisters. She never married. She died January 20, 1987, in San Francisco, at the age of 93.
In March 2017, Hawaii Magazine ranked her among a list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history.
August 1 was the anniversary of Mary Elizabeth (Eliza) Mahoney becoming the first Black woman to graduate from an American school of nursing. She’s considered the first officially trained Black nurse in the United States.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in April or May of 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to parents who were freed slaves, originally from North Carolina. She attended the Phillips School, one of the first integrated schools in Boston (and the United States), for her early education, which is said to have influenced her later decision to become a nurse.
But in order to do that, she faced an uphill battle. Nursing schools in the South rejected applications from Black women and even in the North their opportunities were limited. For 15 years, the closest she could come was to work 16-hour days as a cook, maid and washerwoman at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston – which was dedicated to providing health care only to women and their children and had an all-female staff of physicians.
When the hospital (now the Dimock Community Health Center) opened a nursing program in 1878, Mary Eliza applied. Despite being two years older than the technical admission criteria, she was accepted at age 33 to a 16-month program, alongside 39 other students. Of this entire class, Mary Eliza and two white women were the only ones to receive their degree. (Mary Eliza’s sister, Ellen Mahoney, also decided to attend the same nursing program but was unsuccessful in receiving her diploma.)
It’s not hard to see why. The training was rigorous with the shift running from 5:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. for only meager wages. Students were required to spend time over the course of a year in all the hospital’s wards so that by the time they graduated, they understood each one intimately. Outside of lectures, they were taught bedside procedures such as taking vital signs and bandaging. The last two months of the program required the nurses to use their newfound knowledge and skills in environments they were not accustomed to such as hospitals or private family homes. Mary Eliza chose to work as a private-duty nurse.
On August 1, 1879, Mary Eliza became the first Black woman to graduate from an American school of nursing and is considered the first officially trained Black nurse in the United States.
Mary Eliza worked for many years as a private care nurse, predominately in white households with new mothers and newborns. During the early years of her employment, Black nurses were often treated as if they were household servants rather than professionals. Nevertheless, families who employed her praised her efficiency in her nursing profession. Mary Eliza’s professionalism helped raise the status and standards of all nurses, especially minorities. As her reputation spread, she received private-duty nursing requests from patients in states in the North and on the southeast coast.
In 1908, Mary Eliza worked closely with Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah B. Thoms who founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN.] This organization attempted to uplift the standards and everyday lives of Black registered nurses and had a significant influence on eliminating racial discrimination in the profession until it was integrated into the American Nurses Association in 1951. From 1910 to 1930 alone, the number of Black nurses doubled, thanks to Mary Eliza’s efforts.
From 1911 to 1912, Mary Eliza served as director of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum for Black children in Kings Park, Long Island, New York, a home for freed Black children and elderly. After one year on the job, she decided to retire.
Her nursing career complete, Mary Eliza focused her attention on women’s suffrage. In 1920, after women won the vote, she was among the first women in Boston to register.
In 1923, Mary Eliza was diagnosed with breast cancer, a battle she fought for three years until her death at the age of 80 on January 4, 1926.
In recognition of her outstanding example to nurses of all races, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936. It is still given out today by the American Nurses Association every two years in recognition of significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for members of minority groups.
Mary Eliza received many posthumous honors and awards for her pioneering work. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Her name also graces a health center in Oklahoma City, a dialysis center in Boston and a lecture series at Indiana University Northwest.
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.