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Seven Black Women Healthcare Pioneers

02.01.2022 / Isabella Brown
Seven Black Women Healthcare Pioneers

February is Black History Month, which exists to celebrate the achievements of African Americans and recognize their central role in US history. 

Here are seven Black women who were medical pioneers in the US. They broke barriers and made history through their research, discoveries, and care for patients. These seven women made monumental impacts on our healthcare system today. 

Patricia Bath, MD

Patricia Bath was the first  African American to complete an ophthalmology residency in 1973. She found that African  American patients were twice as likely as White patients to  be blind, and explored inequities in vision care throughout her career. In 1988, she became the first  African American female doctor to receive a medical patent for her invention, the Laserphaco Probe,  which improves treatment for cataract patients. 

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black  woman in the US to receive a medical degree in 1864. That same year, she  opened a  medical practice in Boston, MA. After the Civil War, Crumpler moved to  Richmond, Virginia, where she worked with other Black doctors who were caring for formerly enslaved  people in the Freedmen’s Bureau. Later in life, she wrote,  “I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to, relieve the sufferings of others.”

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD

Marilyn Hughes Gaston is a leading researcher of sickle cell disease, conducting a groundbreaking study which led to national sickle cell disease screening program for newborns. In 1990, Gaston became the first Black female physician to be appointed director of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of  Primary Health Care. She was the  second Black woman to serve as  assistant surgeon general as well as achieve the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. Gaston has been honored with every award that the Public Health Service bestows.

Alexa Irene Canady, MD

Alexa Irene Canady became the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981. A few years later, she rose to the ranks of chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Canady worked for decades as a successful pediatric neurosurgeon and was about to retire in Florida in 2001. However, she continued to practice part time at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, where there was a lack of pediatric neurosurgery services.

Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD, MBA

Regina Marcia Benjamin served as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General,  during which she served as first  chair of the National Prevention Council. The group of 17 federal agencies was responsible for developing the National Prevention Strategy, which outlined plans to improve health and well-being in the United States. Prior to her work in government, Benjamin worked extensively with rural communities in the South. She is the founder and CEO of BayouClinic in  Bayou La Batre, Louisiana, which  provides clinical care, social services,  and health education to residents  of the small Gulf Coast town.

Jane C. Wright

Jane C. Wright worked alongside her father, who was the director of the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital. Together they researched chemotherapy drugs that led to  remissions in patients with leukemia and lymphoma. In 1952, at age 33, Wright became the head of the Cancer Research Foundation. She later created an  innovative technique to test the effect  of drugs on cancer cells. She went on  to be the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. Her research helped transform chemotherapy from a last resort to a viable treatment for cancer.

Joycelyn Elders

Joycelyn Elders was the first person in Arkansas to become a  board-certified pediatric  endocrinologist. She was the first  African American woman to serve  as the U.S. Surgeon General. In 1987, Elders was appointed  to head the Arkansas Department of Health where she campaigned for clinics and expanded sex education. Two years later, Arkansas legislature passed that included sex education, substance abuse prevention and programs to promote self esteem. 

Sources medical-pioneers who-changed-healthcare/ of-medicine/

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