Monday, February 18, 2019

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

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.

To view part one, click here.

Charles Drew - First African American surgeon examiner of the American Board of Surgery and created a system that allowed the immediate and safe transfusion of blood plasma.

Born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. to Richard T. Drew and Nora Burrell, Charles R. Drew grew up in the city. He attended Dunbar High School, where his excellence in academics and athletics earned him an athletic scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts.

After graduating from Amherst in 1926, he began work as director of athletics at Morgan College before attending McGill University’s medical school in Canada. There, he studied with Dr. Beattie and developed his interest in blood storage before he graduated in 1933. He returned to Washington D.C. to become a professor at Howard University’s Medical School.

In 1938, the Rockefeller Foundation offered Drew a research fellowship at New York’s Columbia – Presbyterian Medical Center to study blood.  While there he discovered that plasma, a pale yellow liquid without the blood cells could be stored, preserved, and used in time of emergency.  Shortly after receiving a Ph.D., he was asked to direct a pilot program for collecting, testing, and distributing blood plasma in Great Britain.  During the five-month program, Drew and his associates collected blood from over 15,000 people and gave about 1,500 transfusions.

With the success of the program, Drew gained international fame and was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Plasma Bank. During World War II, he recruited 100,000 blood donors for the U.S. Army and Navy.  Their blood saved the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers.

He returned to Washington D.C and became the head of Howard University’s Department of Surgery and later Chief Surgeon at the University’s Freedman’s Hospital.

Drew died on April 1, 1950 while en route to a Tuskegee Institute medical conference.

Dhadon, D. (2008, December 30) Charles R. Drew (1904-1950). Retrieved from

Helen Dickens – First African-American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons

Helen Dickens was born in Dayton, Ohio on February 21, 1909. Her father, Charles Dickens, had been enslaved in Tennessee as a child and moved north to Ohio shortly after the end of the Civil War. It was there he met her mother, Daisy Jane Green, who had migrated to the United States from Canada with her family. Settling in Dayton, the couple had three children. At her father’s insistence, Helen Octavia Dickens attended integrated elementary and secondary schools, deciding to pursue a career in medicine at the age of 12.

Dickens received a B.S. at the University of Illinois in 1932, followed by an M.D. from the University of Illinois School of Medicine in 1934. The only African-American woman in her graduating class, Dickens next completed a 2-year residency in obstetrics at Provident Hospital in Chicago. She then moved to Philadelphia, working with the birthing practice of Dr. Virginia Alexander, part of Asparanto Health Home, a position she would hold for seven years.

In 1942 Dickens returned to school, this time at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Medicine, earning a Masters Degree in Medical Science with a focus on obstetrics. In 1945, she passed the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology board examinations, making her the first African American woman to hold the certification in Philadelphia.

In 1945, Dickens became Director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia, one of only a few racially integrated facilities in the city. In 1951 she joined the staff of the Women’s Hospital, serving as chief of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology from 1956 to 1964, when the hospital was taken over by the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine. Dickens eventually held faculty positions at both the Medical College of Pennsylvania and the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine where she served as associate dean of minority admissions, helping to recruit and retain students of color.

Dickens’ passions extended well outside the classroom and into the community. In 1967, for example, she founded a Teen Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania aimed at aiding young mothers, one of the first such centers in the country. She also promoted early cancer screenings and prevention, especially in underserved communities.  Dickens served on the board of directors for numerous nonprofit organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the Children’s Aid Society, and the Devereaux Foundation.

During her career, Dickens received honorary degrees from both the Medical College of Pennsylvania and the University of Pennsylvania. She was recognized by the American Medical Women’s Association, the National Association of Medical Minority Educators, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Frederick Douglass Society. Following her retirement in 1998, the University of Pennsylvania named a clinic in her honor: the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s Health.

Dr. Dickens passed away on December 2, 2001 at the age of 92.

Mahoney, E. (2017, December 24) Helen Octavia Dickens (1909-2001). Retrieved from

Patricia Bath - First African-American woman physician to receive a patent for a medical invention

Patricia Era Bath, a prominent ophthalmologist and innovative research and laser scientist, was the first African American woman physician to receive a patent for a medical invention.  Bath was born on November 4, 1942 in Harlem, New York to Rupert Bath, a Trinidadian immigrant and the first black motorman in the New York City subway system, and Gladys Rupert, a domestic worker.  In 1959 while in high school at Charles Evans Hughes, she received a grant from the National Science Foundation to attend the Summer Institute in Biomedical Science at Yeshiva University. There, she studied the relationship between stress, nutrition, and caner.  In 1964, Bath graduated from Hunter College in New York City with a B.S. in chemistry.  Four years later, she received her medical degree from Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C.

The start of Bath’s medical career has been one that broke many racial and gender grounds.  From 1970 to 1973, she completed her training at New York University School of Medicine as the first African American resident in ophthalmology. While a young intern at Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath noticed the contrast between the eye clinic of Harlem where half of the patients were visually impaired or blind and Columbia, where only a few patients suffered from blindness.  Because of this, Bath conducted a study and found that blindness among blacks was double that among whites due to the lack of access of proper eye care in black communities.  In an attempt to remedy this alarming problem, she proposed a new worldwide system known as community ophthalmology in which trained eye care volunteers visit senior centers and day care programs to test the vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and other serious eye conditions.  Through this community outreach program, underserved populations whose eye conditions would have gone untreated have a better chance to prevent blindness.

In 1974, she completed a fellowship in corneal and keratoprosthesis surgery (a procedure that replaces the human cornea with an artificial one).  In that same year, she moved to Los Angeles where she became the first African American woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center, and she was also appointed assistant professor at Charles R. Drew University.  In 1975, she became the first woman faculty member of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute.  Despite her many accomplishments and brilliance in ophthalmology research, the department offered her an office in the basement next to the lab animals.  She refused to take the spot but continued to do her work despite numerous incidences of gender and racial discrimination.  In 1977, she and three colleagues founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

In 1981, Bath traveled to Berlin University to learn more about laser technology and to continue her research that had been continuously stymied by the racial and gender politics of UCLA. The Laser Medical Center of Berlin West Germany, the Rothschild Eye Institute of Paris, France, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology in England accepted the merits of her research. Over the next five years, she began developing a model for a laser instrument that tested the removal of cataracts.  In the meantime in 1983, she chaired the ophthalmology residency training program at Drew and UCLA, becoming the first woman to hold that position in the nation. On May 17, 1988, Bath received a patent for her invention, the Laserphaco Probe, and the new technique used for cataract surgery. The device restored the sight of thousands of patients worldwide and was the only one available for the removal of cataracts. Bath’s contributions changed the field of ophthalmology.

In 1993, Bath retired from UCLA Medical Center and continues to advocate for fighting blindness. In 2001, she was inducted into the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame.

Bath currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband Dr. Benny J. Primm.  They have one daughter, Eraka Patty Jene Bath.

Cobbins, Q. (2009, March 29) Patricia Bath (1942- ). Retrieved from

Alexa Canady – First African-American woman neurosurgeon

Alexa Canady was the first woman and the first African American to become a neurosurgeon. She was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1950 to parents who were graduates of black colleges – her father from the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry and her mother from Fisk University. She and her brother were the only black students at the local schools where she graduated as a National Achievement Scholar in 1967. Canady entered the University of Michigan as a math major, but when the opportunity arose, she transferred into the school’s pre-med program. She graduated in 1971 and was accepted into Michigan’s College of Medicine where she graduated magna cum laude in 1975. Canady interned at New Haven Hospital, Yale’s primary teaching hospital, before she became America’s first female and first black neurosurgeon as a resident at the University of Minnesota.

After five years of training Canady accepted a fellowship in Pediatric Neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia from 1981-82 where she taught at the Pennsylvania College of Medicine at the same time. In 1983 she retuned to Michigan as a neurosurgeon at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. She also joined the staff of Children’s Hospital of Michigan as a pediatric neurosurgeon.  Three years later Canady, at the age of 36, became the chief of staff, a position she retained until 2001. Later Canady taught at Wayne State University and in 1997 became the Medical School’s clinical professor of neurosurgery. In 1993 Canady was named the American Medical Women’s Medical Association Woman of the Year and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

BlackPast, B. (2007, January 18) Alexa Canady (1950- ). Retrieved from

Marilyn Gaston - First African-American female director of an U.S. Public Health Service Bureau

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D., faced poverty and prejudice as a young student, but was determined to become a physician. She has dedicated her career to medical care for poor and minority families, and campaigns for health care equality for all Americans. Her 1986 study of sickle-cell disease led to a nationwide screening program to test newborns for immediate treatment, and she was the first African American woman to direct a public health service bureau (the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the United States Department of Health and Human Services).

By the time she was 9 years old, Marilyn Hughes knew she wanted to be a doctor, but because she was poor and black, she was dissuaded from pursuing her dream. She studied zoology at Miami University, and when she graduated in 1960, she enrolled at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, encouraged by a physician she worked for. When she began medical school, she was one of only six women, and the only African-American woman in her year.

Dr. Gaston first became interested in the problems of children with sickle cell disease (SCD) while doing her internship at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964. SCD is an inherited blood disorder that results in chronic anemia and recurring episodes of pain. In a person with SCD, some blood cells take on a sickle-like, crescent shape, causing hemoglobin to clump and block the capillaries, ultimately damaging blood-starved tissues. Over time, it can cause weakness, even death, especially for patients in developing nations, where treatment is not readily available. According to the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, each year approximately a thousand babies are born with the disease in America.

One evening, during her internship, Dr. Gaston admitted a baby with a badly swollen hand. No trauma was reported, and she could not find the cause of the swelling. Her supervising resident suggested she check the blood work for evidence of sickle cell disease. The child did have SCD, and his hand was swollen from infection. Gaston was appalled that she hadn't even considered checking for this condition, and set out to learn everything she could about it. She secured federal grants to study SCD in children and established protocols for routine screening for the disease. In 1976 she began a long association with the National Institutes for Health as a medical expert, and later, as deputy branch chief of the Sickle Cell Disease Branch.

In 1986 Dr. Gaston published the results of a groundbreaking national study that proved the effectiveness of giving SCD children long-term penicillin treatment to prevent septic infections. Her study showed that babies should be screened for SCD at birth, so that preventive penicillin could be given right away. The study resulted in Congressional legislation to encourage and fund SCD screening programs nationwide. Within one year, forty states had begun screening programs. One of the most important conclusions of her work was the ease with which the complications of Sickle Cell Disease could be avoided with early treatment, a life-saving practice that became a central policy of the U.S. Public Health Service.

In 1990, Dr. Gaston went on to become director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the first African American woman to direct a public health service bureau, where she focused on improving health care services for poor and underserved families. She controlled a budget of $5 billion serving 12 million patients. When Dr. Gaston retired in 2001, her staff presented her with newly received data from prophylactic penicillin programs recently carried out in Africa, underscoring the worldwide impact of her work.

Her scientific achievements, as well as her ongoing commitment to improving the health of poor and minority Americans, have been recognized in many awards and honors, including every award given by the Public Health Service, and the most prestigious honor awarded by the National Medical Association—the NMA Scroll of Merit, in 1999. She also received the NMA's Lifetime Achievement Award, several honorary degrees, and is celebrated on "Marilyn Hughes Gaston Day" in Cincinnati and Lincoln Heights, Ohio. The University of Cincinnati College of Medicine has named a scholarship in her honor, giving full medical scholarships to two underprivileged minority students each year. The scholarships help other young people facing discrimination and financial hardship to pursue their own dreams of a career in medicine.

Changing the Face Of Medicine | Marilyn Hughes Gaston

Dr. Vivian Pinn - first female and first African-American woman Director of the Office of Research on Women's Health, National Institutes of Health

Medical director Vivian W. Pinn was born in 1941 in Halifax, Virginia. She grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. Pinn received her B.A. degree from Wellesley College in 1963. She earned her M.D. degree from the University of Virginia School of Medicine in 1967 where she was the only woman and only minority in her class. Pinn completed her residency in pathology at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1970 while also serving as a teaching fellow at the Harvard Medical School

In 1970, Pinn joined Tufts University as assistant professor of pathology in the School of Medicine and the Tufts New England Medical Center Hospital, with a concurrent appointment as the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs. In 1982, she moved to Washington, D.C. where she served as a professor as well as the third woman and first African American woman appointed to chair a department of pathology in the U.S. while at Howard University College of Medicine. Pinn became the first director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) in the Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1991. In February of 1994, she was named associate director for Research on Women’s Health at NIH. While there, Pinn completed a national initiative to reexamine priorities for the women’s health research agenda, as well as areas in need of research. This new strategic plan for the coming decade, Moving into the Future with New Dimensions and Strategies: a Vision for 2020 for Women’s Health Research, was presented publicly at the 2010 NIH Scientific Symposium and the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the ORWH. She also served as co-chair of the NIH Working Group on Women in Biomedical Careers.

In 1989, Pinn was elected as president of the National Medical Association after serving in many other capacities including as Speaker of the House of Delegates and Trustee. The UVA School of Medicine established the Vivian W. Pinn Distinguished Lecture in Health Disparities, and further honored her in 2010 by naming one of its advisory colleges for medical students in her name, the Vivian Pinn College of UVA. In 2011, she received the Tufts University School of Medicine Dean’s Medal. Pinn was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Institute of Medicine. Pinn has also been elected as an Honorary Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, and received the Academy Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Health Policy.

Dr. Vivian Pinn's Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Dr. Lonnie Bristow – First African-American President of the American Medical Association

In 1995, Lonnie Bristow, a board-certified doctor of internal medicine, became the first African American President of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its 148 year history.  Bristow, the son of Lonnie Harlis Bristow, a Baptist minister, and Vivian Wines Bristow, a nurse, grew up in Harlem, New York where he attended public schools and entered Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of sixteen where he played quarterback on the varsity football team.  He left Morehouse after two years, joined the U.S. Navy for four years and then received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York in 1953.  Bristow earned his M.D. from New York University in 1957.  Growing up seeing his mother work as a nurse encouraged his interest in the medical profession.  After completing medical school he established an internal medicine practice in San Pablo, California.

Bristow, who joined the AMA in 1970, served as an alternate delegate, a delegate, a member of the executive committee, and a member (and later chair) of the Board of Regents before being elected president of the 300,000 member association for 1995-1996.  His work as president focused on many of the issues he addressed throughout his career including sickle cell anemia, coronary care, and socio-economic issues impacting health care.  His goals included reforming the profession by expanding the range of care doctors give to their patients, putting patients’ needs ahead of monetary interests, and improving the doctor-patient relationship.  He also saw his election as president as highlighting the advances of African Americans in the medical field over the past 148 years of the AMA, including most of that period when black doctors were not allowed to join the organization.  African Americans were accepted for the first time in 1968.  Bristow also saw his work as a testimony to the role of education and hard work in generating acceptance.  He frequently addressed audiences of future medical professionals of various backgrounds, encouraging them to strive for excellence in their work in order to make their dreams of advancement realities.

One of Bristow’s goals as President of the AMA was to address the issue of ethics in the medical community, including implementing ethics courses and questions about ethics on medical licensing exams.  He also worked to encourage HIV/AIDS education at home and abroad.  He has honorary degrees from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Morehouse College School of Medicine, Wayne State University School of Medicine, and the City College of New York.

Bristow continues to be an advocate for diversity in the health care fields to encourage young people to explore various segments of the health care field.  He also continues his work as a consultant for various local and national organizations.

Miyamoto, M. (2010, November 22) Lonnie Bristow (1930- ). Retrieved from

Dr. Mark Colomb – Louisiana native; Professor, Sociologist and nation HIV/AIDS thought and capacity-building leader

Born in Lafayette, La. Dr. Colomb received his early and high school education in Lafayette Catholic schools. he earned a bachelor's degree from Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, La.; a master's degree in sociology, a specialist degree in education, and a doctoral degree in educational administration from Jackson State University. He completed post-doctoral training at Tulane and was certified by the Research Administrators Certification Council as a research administrator.

Dr. Colomb's distinguished career in the public health arena began as a graduate assistant with the Jackson State University National Alumni AIDS Prevention Project in 1988. Upon completion of his master's degree in 1992, he began working at the Mississippi State Department of Health, Division of STD/HIV, where he became a division branch director and served until 1999. Dr. Colomb joined the staff of Jackson State University as director and thus cultivated the development of the Mississippi Urban Research Center (MURC) where he served as project director/principal investigator for 13 federally- and state-funded projects from 1999-2003. He is credited with garnering more than $9 million, the largest of 12 five-year national grants awarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2000. This funding established Jackson State University as a premier HIV/AIDS prevention training agency while serving as the lead entity for four regional organizations providing HIV/AIDS prevention training to African American community-based organizations throughout the U.S. and its territories. Dr. Colomb was also founder of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

Dr. Colomb played an integral role in shaping state and national HIV/AIDS policy legislation, particularly on behalf of African Americans, by working with a variety of constituents from grassroots advocacy groups to national legislative bodies.

Upon retirement from Jackson State University in 2003, Dr. Colomb worked to reduce health disparities and promote well-being in minority populations. As president and chief executive officer of My Brother's Keeper, Inc., a nonprofit organization. Dr. Colomb spearheaded funding from national organizations to conduct HIV/AIDS, heart disease, obesity, breast, cervical and prostate cancer, and childhood lead poisoning prevention education and services projects locally and nationally.

Dr. Colomb’s academic appointments included professorships (in sociology) at Jackson State University and Tougaloo College. He was a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.; and numerous social, professional and academic honor organizations, including, Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and Pi Lambda Theta International Honor Society and Professional Association in Education.

Dr. Helene Gayle - First African-American woman named director of the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Medical researcher and health care administrator Helene Gayle was born in Buffalo, New York on August 16, 1955.  Growing up in Buffalo, Gayle was surrounded in an atmosphere of compassion and generosity.  Her mother, Marietta, was a social worker, her father, Jacob, was a small business owner.  The family’s compassion was often expressed by the frequent trips to nursing homes to visit the elderly in their neighborhood community.  Although home life became unstable for Gayle because of her mother’s worsening mental illness and her parents’ divorce, Gayle knew she wanted to pursue a career which would allow her to help others.

Helene Gayle chose to enter the field of medicine.  She received a B.A. in psychology from Barnard College, an M.D. from the University in Pennsylvania, and a M.P.H. from Johns Hopkins University.  After finishing her studies and residency, Gayle took a position at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1984, where she was able to combine medicine with social advocacy.  She also found a passion for working with international health programs during a trip to West Africa, where she assessed nutrition.  Gayle spent 20 years at CDC, most of which focused on working with HIV/AIDS.

In 2001 Gayle was offered a job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was beginning to put a greater focus on global health issues.  The Gates Foundation recruited Gayle because of her high level of experience with HIV/AIDS.  She became the director of the Gates Foundation’s HIV, TB, and Reproductive Health program.  Her success in developing this program led the organization CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) to offer her the position of CEO in 2006.  Gayle became the first African American to head CARE. 

At CARE, Gayle is able to address the issues of social inequity around the world.  One of the first policies she focused on as CEO was the empowerment of women.  She is also working to find, understand, and solve the underlying causes of world poverty and inequity.  "We’ve moved very much from giving a person a fish, to teaching a person to fish, to actually figuring out why there are no fish in the stream to begin with," says Gayle.  Through her work at CARE Gayle has become highly esteemed and was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers” and one of Newsweek’s top ten “Women in Leadership.” 

In 2009 President Barack Obama appointed Gayle to chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.  Gayle accepted the position but continued as CEO at CARE.  As chair of the Council, Gayle is working to develop for the first time a national health policy in regard to HIV/AIDS. Gayle serves on multiple boards, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Trsek, K. (2011, May 23) Helene Gayle (1955- ). Retrieved from


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