Monday, February 4, 2019

Black History Month 2019: Celebrating the Achievements of African-Americans in Healthcare and Medicine

Each year, Black History Month gives us an opportunity to reflect on and honor the ways in which African-Americans have shaped the United States.

 For Black History Month 2019, the Louisiana Department of Health will be highlighting African-American pioneers in medicine and healthcare who have not only advanced and advocated for the health of all Americans, but also advanced race relations in the U.S.

Alexander T. Augusta, MD - First Black physician appointed director of a U.S. hospital

Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1825 to free African-American parents, Alexander Thomas Augusta would serve as the highest-ranking black officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.

During his youth, he moved to Baltimore, Maryland to work as a barber while pursuing a medical education. The University of Pennslyvania would not accept him, but a faculty member took interest in him and taught him privately.

By 1850, Augusta and his wife moved to Toronto, Canada where he was accepted by the Medical College at the University of Toronto where he received an M.B. in 1856. He was then appointed head of the Toronto City Hospital and was also in charge of an industrial school.

In April 1863, he was commissioned as a major in the Union Army and appointed head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry.

Following the war, Augusta became the first Black physician appointed director of a U.S. hospital when he served as the director at the Freedman's Hospital in Washington D.C.  After leaving Freedman's, Augusta was in charge of the Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia until 1868 when he started his own practice in Washington D.C. He then became the first black medical professor as one of the original faculty members of the newly formed Medical College at Howard University in Washington D.C. where he remained until 1877.

Despite being denied recognition as a physician by the American Medical Association, he encouraged young black medical students to persevere and helped make Howard University an early success.

When Augusta died in Washington, D.C. in 1890, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery  -- the first black officer to be honored this way.

Fenison, J. (2009, March 29) Alexander T. Augusta (1825-1890). Retrieved from 

Rebecca Crumpler - First Black woman awarded a medical degree from a U.S. college

Rebecca Crumpler was born a free woman in Delaware in about 1833. She was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who had a profound effect on Crumpler. Everyone in the community would come to her aunt for medical assistance, and as a result of watching her aunt, knew it was the field that she had to work in to “relieve the sufferings of others.”

She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she became a nurse. There were no nursing schools then so she learned on the job, impressing doctors whom she worked with and earning letters of recommendation to be admitted to the New England Female Medical College. He acceptance at the college was highly unusual as there were few medical schools, and most did not admit African-Americans.

She started classes in 1860, but her studies were interrupted by the Civil War. When she graduated in 1864, she became the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree and the only African-American woman to ever graduate from the New England Female College.
Crumpler began a medical practice in Boston, but moved to Richmond, Virginia when the Civil War ended to help freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care.

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler died in 1895 in Fairview, Massachusetts.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), Physician

James Durham - First African-American to practice medicine in the United States

Born in Philadelphia, James Durham began his life as a slave and in 1788, he was sold to a prominent surgeon in New Orleans. There, the surgeon encouraged Durham to learn medicine and he showed great aptitude at helping others, and he quickly learned the art of surgery.

After being freed, he was permitted to practice among the freeman and slaves of New Orleans. Popular for his medical knowledge, Durham was also known for his fluency in French, English and Spanish. Because freemen were not permitted to consult a white doctor, Durham would’ve been instrumental in their health.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a well-respected physician, visited New Orleans and was told of Durham. Rush invited Durham to Philadelphia to meet him. Rush is quoted as saying he learned more from Durham than Durham could’ve have learned from him. Rush was mostly impressed with Dunham’s success in treating diphtheria patients.

New Orleans passed regulations in 1801 that prevented him from practicing medicine as he had no formal medical degree. Durham disappeared in 1802.

Durham, James (01 May 1762–?), Physician
Betty Plummer - American National Biography Online - 2000

Mary Mahoney – First African-American woman awarded a nursing degree

Mary Mahoney was born in the spring of 1845 in Boston, Massachusetts to freed slaves who had moved to Boston from North Carolina. From an early age, Mahoney learned the importance of racial equality. She was educated at Phillips School in Boston, which after 1855, became one of the first integrated schools in the country.

Mahoney knew she wanted to become a nurse in her teens and began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children where she acted as a janitor, cook and washerwoman. She also learned a great deal about the nursing profession while serving as a nurse’s aide.

The hospital operated one of the first nursing schools in the United States, and in 1878, at the age of 33, Mahoney was admitted to the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing, a 16-month, intensive program involving lectures and first-hand experience in the hospital. Many students were not able to complete the program and of the 42 students that entered the program that year, only four completed it – Mahoney was one of them, making her the first African-American in the country with a professional nursing license.

After completing her training, Mahoney decided to not pursue a career in public nursing due to the overwhelming discrimination and instead became a private nurse.

She was an active participant in the profession, joining the Nurses Associated Alumane of the United States and Canada in 1896, which later became the American Nurses Association. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.

After decades as a private nurse, she became the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children in New York City. She retired from nursing after 40 years in the profession.

However, she continued to champion women’s rights and after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920, she was among the first women who registered to vote in Boston.
Mahoney died on January 4, 1926 at the age of 80 after three years of battling breast cancer. Her life and pioneering spirit are recognized by numerous awards, and she was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Her gravesite has also become a memorial site.

Spring, Kelly. "Mary Mahoney." National Women's History Museum. 2017.

James Smith – First African-American to hold a medical degree

James McCune Smith was born in New York City on April 18, 1813 to a slave and a self-emancipated woman. He attended the African Free School in the city where, according to the Dictionary of American Biography, he was chosen to speak to Revolutionary War hero Lafayette at 11.

Smith received his bachelor’s degree in 1835 from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He would go on to receive his master’s degree in 1836 and his medical degree in 1837.

He worked briefly in clinics in Paris, but returned to New York City to open a pharmacy on West Broadway, making him the first African-American to run a pharmacy. He would go on to work as a physician and surgeon from 1838 until two years before his death in 1865. He also served on the medical staff at the Free Negro Orphan Asylum in New York City for 20 years.

Smith was appointed to teach anthropology at Ohio’s Wilberforce University in 1863, but his poor health prevented him from taking the position. He would die two years later on November 17, 1865 from heart disease at his home in Long Island.

"James McCune Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 06, 2019 from

Daniel Hale Williams - Opened the first African-American owned and interracial hospital in the United States, and performed the first successful operation on a human heart

Born on January 18, 1858 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Daniel Hale Williams made a number of medical firsts for African-Americans.

Williams graduated from Chicago Medical College in 1883 and served as a surgeon for the South Side Dispensary and physician for the Protestant Orphan Asylum. In response to the lack of opportunity for African-Americans in the medical professions, he founded the nation’s first interracial hospital, Provident, to provide training and interns and the first school for nurses for African-Americans in the country. He served as a surgeon there in two stints, and surgeon in chief of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he established another school for African-American nurses.

While at Provident, Williams performed heart surgery on July 10, 1893. Despite contemporary medical opinion disapproving of surgical treatment of heart wounds, Williams opened the patient’s thoracic cavity – without the aid of blood transfusions or modern anesthetics and antibiotics. He sutured a wound of the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart) and closed the chest. The patient lived for at least 20 years after.

He would later serve on the staffs of Cook County Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital, and from 1899, was professor of clinical surgery at Meharry Medical College. He was also a member of the Illinois State Board of Health. In 1913, when the American College of Surgeons was created, he was the only black charter member.

Daniel Hale Williams died on August 4, 1931 in Idlewild, Michigan.

Daniel Hale Williams
The Britannica -

Robert Boyd – President and co-founder of the first professional organization for black physicians

Dr. Robert Boyd was born a slave on July 8, 1855 in Pulaski, Tennessee. He dreamed of becoming a physician despite his educational limitations and attended Fisk University at night when he was of age. He soon began teaching at local schools as he did so well at Fisk.

In 1880, he entered the medical department of Central Tennessee College, and two years later, he graduated with honors. After teaching in Mississippi, he graduated from Meharry Medical College with a Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.) degree in 1887. He opened his practice that same year, serving patients of all economic classes.

Taken aback by black mortality rates, he lectured in public forums and churches on the importance of proper health care.

He collected more degrees, earning a postgraduate degree from the School of Medicine at the University of Chicago and a Master of Arts degree from Central Tennessee.

Boyd later became Meharry’s professor of gynecology and clinical medicine. Although Central Tennessee could not afford to open a teaching hospital, a facility was built near the school and students had privileges. The hospital was open to Meharry students until Nashville officials barred them due to race. This inspired Boyd to open Mercy Hospital in 1890, and he opened his doors to students and anyone else in need.

That same year, Boyd and a group of prominent Black physicians formed a national fraternity known as the Society of Colored Physicians and Surgeons, which then elected Boyd as its first president.
He was also elected president of Nashville’s second black-owned bank.

Dr. Robert Boyd died on July 20, 1912 at the age of 57.

Little Known Black History Fact: Dr. Robert F. Boyd
D.L. Chandler -

Solomon Fuller - First African-American psychiatrist recognized by the American Psychiatric Association

Solomon Fuller was born on August 11, 1872 in Monrovia, Liberia. His parents were Americo-Liberians. Solomon’s grandfather was a slave in Virginia who bought the freedom of himself and his wife before emigrating to Liberia in 1852 to help establish a settlement of African-Americans.

Fuller always showed an interest in medicine and, in 1889, he went to the United States to attend Livingstone College in North Carolina. He then attended Long Island College Medical School and completed his medical degree at the Boston University School of Medicine in 1897. After completing his internship at Westborough State Hospital and remaining there as a pathologist, he became a faculty member at Boston University School of Medicine.

He faced discrimination in the medical field in the form of unequal salaries and underemployment.   His duties often involved performing autopsies, an unusual procedure for that era.  While performing these autopsies Fuller made discoveries which allowed him to advance in his career as well contribute to the scientific and medical communities.

Fuller’s major contribution was to the growing clinical knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease. As part of his post-graduate studies at the University of Munich Fuller researched pathology and specifically neuropathology.  In 1903, Solomon Carter Fuller was one of the five foreign students chosen by Alois Alzheimer to do research at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Munich.

He also helped correctly diagnose and train others to correctly diagnose the side effects of syphilis to prevent black war veterans from getting misdiagnosed, discharged, and ineligible for military benefits.

Fuller died of diabetes in 1953. The American Psychiatric Association annually presents the Solomon Carter Fuller Award named in his honor, and in 1974, the Black Psychiatrists of America created the Solomon Carter Fuller program for young black aspiring psychiatrists to complete their residency. The Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston is also named after him. 

Heung, C. (2008, June 29) Solomon Carter Fuller (1872-1953). Retrieved from 

Robert Tanner Freeman – First professionally trained African-American dentist

Robert Tanner Freeman was born in Washington, D.C., in 1846. His formerly enslaved parents took the surname “Freeman” as did others after gaining their freedom. Freeman befriended Henry Bliss Noble, a local white dentist, and began working as his apprentice. It was Dr. Noble who encourage Freeman to apply to dental schools.

Two medical schools rejected Freeman’s application but with the encouragement of Dr. Nobel who had contacts at Harvard Medical School, Freeman applied there.  Initially rejected, he was accepted into Harvard Medical School in 1867 at the age of 21, after a petition by Dean Nathan Cooley Keep to end the school’s historical exclusion of African Americans and other racial minorities.

Freeman and another classmate, George Franklin Grant, became the first African-Americans to enter the Harvard Dental School and two years later became the first African-American dentists.

Dr. Freeman returned to Washington, D.C. after his graduation to open his own practice.  He became a pillar in the D.C. black community because of his commitment to mentoring other African American youth interested in the medical profession.  Unfortunately, his death came in 1873, only four years after he received his dental school degree. While working in Washington, D.C. he contracted a water-borne disease although the records are unclear as to the specific disease.

He was honored by the National Dental Association which adopted his mission to extend dental treatment and education to the impoverished, the disabled and people of color as well as those who may not seek proper care due to age.

BlackPast, B. (2007, January 18) Robert Tanner Freeman (1846-1873). Retrieved from

William Augustus Hinton – First African-American to teach at Harvard Medical School

William August Hinton was born on December 15, 1883 in Chicago. The son of former slaves freed after the Civil War, Hinton grew up in Kansas and was the youngest student to ever graduate from his high school. His family’s poverty and lack of education did not deplete his own will to succeed, largely because his parents exhibited a strong belief in the importance of equal opportunity for everyone. Hinton had to leave the University of Kansas after two years so that he could earn money for further studies, but in 1902, he entered Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard in 1905, he had to put off his entry to medical school, once again due to financial need. Harvard offered him a scholarship reserved for black students, but he refused it.

Hinton taught at schools in Nasvhille, Tennessee and Langston, Oklahoma during the next four years while taking course at the University of Chicago during the summer. In 1909, he entered Harvard Medical School and earned his medical degree three years later. He won the prestigious Wigglesworth and Hayden scholarships while there.

He got his first job after medical school teaching serological techniques at the Wassermann Laboratory, which was then part of Harvard. He was also an assistant in the department of pathologic of Massachusetts General Hospital.

He used his training in serology to develop a new blood analysis for diagnosing syphilis. Hinton became proficient at syphilis diagnosis and soon wrote his first scientific paper on it, with Roger I. Lee. The paper was one of more than 25 of his works that appeared in scientific journals during his career.

His growing skill then led to his appointment as director of the laboratory department of the Boston Dispensary in 1915.

Hinton died on August 7, 1959 in Canton, Massachusetts.

"Hinton, William Augustus 1883–1959." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved February 11, 2019 from

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