February is Black History Month, and to celebrate, Fast Layne Solutions would like to pay tribute to some of the key African-American pioneers in the field of medicine.
Dr. James McCune Smith (1813 – 1865) was the very first African American to hold a medical degree. He was the valedictorian of his graduating class in medical school at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. After completing his degree and then an internship in Paris, he returned to the US, where he had a long and successful career that included being the first Black man to run a pharmacy in the United States; publishing articles in respected medical journals; and conducting extensive research, especially in the area of refuting racist theories about the connections between race and intelligence. He accomplished all this despite the many obstacles 19th-century America put in his path: he was refused admission to medical schools in the US due to his race, and was never accepted by the American Medical Association or even local medical groups. He was even once refused passage on a ship to return to America due to his race. Smith was an ardent abolitionist, and died just before the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens (1909 – 2001) was the first African-American woman to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons. She completed her medical degree at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in 1934. In 1942, she passed the boards to become the first Black woman to become a board-certified Ob/gyn in Philadelphia. She served as Director of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Mercy Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia for almost 20 years, and did extensive research into the areas of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, using the results to educate young women. As a doctor who faced the double challenge of overcoming both racism and sexism in her personal and professional lives, she was a true pioneer in both medicine and the fight for equality.
Dr. Robert Fulton Boyd (1855 – 1912) was the first president of the National Medical Association, an organization he and others founded in response to the racial segregation of medical facilities and schools and of other medical associations. Born into slavery, he went on to become a superlatively qualified healer, earning a degree not only in medicine but dentistry, on top of a Master of Arts degree. In 1893, he was appointed professor of gynecology and clinical medicine at Meharry College in Nashville.
Mary Mahoney (1845 – 1926) was the first African American woman to be awarded a nursing degree in 1879. She was also among the first Black women to be admitted to the American Nurses Association (ANA). She was a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which made significant contributions in the area of ending racial discrimination policies in their field. (The NACGN later merged with the ANA.) She was a civil rights pioneer in other ways, too: she was among the first Black women to register to vote in Boston after Suffrage. She was honored with induction into both the ANA’s and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Despite the great strides made by these and other brave African American pioneers in the field of medicine, to this day, Black medical professionals face challenges unknown to their white counterparts. Sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield of Washington University has studied this subject extensively and her work shows we still have a long way to go. That’s doubly true for African American women working in medicine. Wingfield reported cases of Black female doctors regularly being called “miss” by people who assumed they must be nurses or orderlies. And the “new economy,” with its emphasis on contract work, has presented even more challenges, as Black medical professionals are disproportionately pushed into such arrangements, limiting both job security and upward mobility.
Every February, Black History Month provides us with myriad inspirational stories telling us how far we have come as a society, along with new milestones showing that we continue to make incremental improvements. But it also a sobering reminder that we still have miles to travel before we arrive at that “not too distant tomorrow [when] the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” But we will get there. Dr. Martin Luther King never doubted that vision of his, and he never abandoned hope. Nor should we.