"The Power of Medicine"

Dr. James McCune Smith 

While faintly known, James McCune Smith, M.D. is to be heralded as the first Black physician holding a medical doctorate to practice medicine in the United States. Dr. Smith was born in 1813 in the state of New York to a mother he described as a “self-emancipated former bond servant.” Dr. Smith’s educational career began during his years at the African Free Schools in New York City. Here he gained a reputation for being intellectually advanced as evidenced by his progressing to African Free School No. 2 by the age of 9. Smith was also known for being articulate, which he displayed most famously in his first abolitionist speech before Revolutionary War General Lafayette at age 11. 

Smith’s career in medicine began in Scotland at the University of Glasgow. The future Dr. Smith was denied admission from American universities. After earning his bachelor’s, master’s and medical degrees, he returned to the state of New York in 1937 to begin his medical practice. Dr. Smith operated from his office in Brooklyn and later at a joint clinic and pharmacy located at 55 West Broadway. SMith also served as the physician for the Colored Orphan Asylum. Dr. Smith was known for working tirelessly to treat the orphans as well contribute to the ongoing development of the institution. 

Dr. Smith made history again when he became the first Black physician published in an American medical scientific journal, the New York Journal of Medicine. Smith’s case study sought to assess the possible connection between opioid use and the temporary cessation of menses. 

While Dr. Smith was a physician by trade, his life’s work extended well beyond the scope of medicine. He was also a well known abolitionist through his revolutionary writings. Smith also worked alongside contemporaries including Frederick Douglas, Gerritt Smith and John Brown, a fellow black medical practitioner. Smith is known for speaking out against Thomas Jefferson’s comments regarding the status of Blacks in America. He married his commitment to medicine with his passion for “refuting racially biased statistics.” 

Source: James McCune Smith


Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

We spotlight Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler for her trailblazing efforts as the first African American woman to earn a medical doctorate. Dr. Crumpler earned this distinction in 1864 by graduating from New England Female Medical College. Dr. Cumpler also went on to become one of the first African American authors of a medical publication in 1883.Crumpler hails from Delaware. She was born to her parents Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber on February 8, 1831. Rebecca was raised by her aunt, who historians credit for first exposing Rebecca to the field of nursing. Crumpler started working as a nurse in 1852 without any formal training, as the first formal nursing school would not open until 1873. 

In 1860, Rebecca gained acceptance to the New England Female Medical College. Dr. Crumpler is also the only African American to graduate from New England Female Medical College, which closed its doors in 1873.

After earning her medical doctorate, Dr. Crumpler went on to become a distinguished author. In 1883 Crumpler published her Book of Medical Discourses. This work summarizes her career experiences. She even details how her nursing career in Charlestown, MA helped her secure “letters commending [her] to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College, whence, four years afterward, I received the degree of doctress of medicine."

In Boston, MA, Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine and later moved to Richmond, VA following the end of the Civil War in 1865. Crumpler found her passion in the postwar South. Here Dr. Crumpler lent her expertise to caring for more than 30,000 Black patients majority of whom were impoverished. Dr. Crumpler’s passion for indigent care continued when she united with the Freedmen's Bureau and other Black physicians to provide adequate healthcare to former enslaved African Americans in spite of the prevalence of racism. Following her time in the South, Dr. Crumpler returned home to Boston and settled into retirement by 1880. Dr. Rebecca Crumpler and her accomplishments as a medical doctor and medical writer will be revered for ages to come. Her courageous and trailblazing spirit is a testament to primary care physicians everywhere who valiantly fight for their patient’s survival. 

Source: Rebecca Lee Crumpler https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/celebrating-rebecca-lee-crumpler-first-african-american-physician



Dr. Charles R. Drew

Dr. Charles Richard Drew was born in Washington, D.C. in 1904 to Richard and Nora Drew. He’s most widely known for developing the first national blood bank. 

Affectionately known as Charlie, Dr. Drew  began his path toward medicine while enrolled at the esteemed Dunbar High School. Although Drew expressed no interest in medicine during his adolescent years, he was an award-winning athlete and lettered in four sports in high school. for his skills as an athlete. 

Drew’s earliest career aspirations included becoming an electrical engineer. Only after witnessing his older sister succumb to complications of tuberculosis and influenza did Drew take an interest in medicine. His interest in medicine intensified after suffering a sports injury in college. Drew attended Amherst College on an athletic scholarship. He earned his bachelor’s of art in 1926.

Before attending medical school, Drew served as both athletic director and a science instructor at what is now Morgan State University. Drew's initial efforts to matriculate in medical school were spurred by the racial segregationist climate of the 1930s. Drew applied to Howard University but was denied for lacking prerequisites. He was then offered deferred admission at Harvard which limited the number of non-white students in each class. Drew then opted to attend medical school in Montreal at McGill University Faculty of Medicine. In Canada, Drew was better accepted due to the nation’s reputation for welcoming African Americans.

Even in medical school, Drew shined as a star athlete, and his athletic abilities were matched with academic success. Drew went on to graduate second in his class, earning his medical doctorate in 1933. 

From 1933 to 1935, he worked at Montreal General Hospital to complete his intern and surgical residency. It was during this time, he worked under the tutelage of Dr. John Beattie who focused on treating shock with various fluid replacement methods such as transfusion. Here Drew gained inspiration for what would later become his greatest contribution to the medical field, the mobile blood bank. 

In 1935, Drew began teaching pathology as a faculty member at Howard University College of Medicine. He later became a surgical instructor and eventually chief surgical resident at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Drew went on to earn a doctorate in medical science from Columbia University. While in New York, Drew trained under Dr. Edward Lee Howes, then chair of the surgery department, as well as the esteemed Dr. Allen O. Whipple at Presbyterian Hospital. At Presbyterian, Drew’s work regarding shock and blood chemistry continued with Dr. John Scudder. Together, the two piloted a hospital blood bank in 1939, which served as the basis of Drew’s thesis. Drew earned his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1940 and is the first African American to do so.

Drew married Minnie Lenore Robbins, a Spelman College professor in 1939. To the union were born four children, three girls and one son. Additional highlights of Drew’s career include becoming the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery. In 1941 he became the Department of Surgery chair and Chief of Surgery at Freedman’s Hospital. Drew died tragically in 1950 after a car accident. Rumors surrounding Drew’s death that he may have been denied a transfusion in light of his race have since been debunked. Yet and still with Dr. Charles R. Drew’s blood bank innovations, all of the minds he molded as an academic at Howard, along with the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU) make for an incredible legacy. The graduate school named in Dr. Drew’s honor builds upon his barrier-breaking mindset as a Historically Black Graduate Institution and member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Since 1966, CDU has graduated more than 570 physicians, and is the second most diverse private nonprofit college in the nation.

Sources: https://www.cdrewu.edu/about-cdu https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/spotlight/bg/feature/biographical



Dr. Mae Carol Jemison 

Dr. Mae Carol Jemison hails from Decatur, AL and was born in 1956. She is most widely known for being the first African American woman astronaut. Jemison grew up in Chicago, IL where she gained her passion for science. Through interactions with her uncle, Jemison developed an affinity for anthropology (the study of human societies and cultures), archaeology (the study of human history/prehistory), evolution (the study of species over time) and astronomy (the study of space). Mae set out for a career in biomedical engineering after graduating from high school at age 16 in 1973. She immediately matriculated into Stanford University.

Jemison graduated with two degrees in 1977 after double majoring in chemical engineering and African American studies. She then went on to attend Cornell University’s medical school specializing in international medicine. Dr. Jemison earned her medical doctorate in 1981 after volunteering abroad in Thailand and Kenya. Jemison did not practice medicine long before joining the Peace Corps as a medical officer. Her time in the Peace Corps took her to West Africa where she worked with members of the U.S. embassy, the NIH and CDC to develop the hepatitis B vaccine.

Following her time abroad, Dr. Jemison applied to be a NASA astronaut. In 1986, she became 1 of 15 applicants accepted out of 2,000. Jemison worked for several years training as a mission specialist and later in support of other NASA missions. In 1992, Jemison took her first space flight aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. Following the completion of her mission, Dr. Jemison started her very own tech consulting firm, The Jemison Group. Jemison also later founded The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for excellence, named in honor of Dr. Mae Jemison’s late mother. Through her foundation, Jemison develops curricula while inspiring and educating future scientists and creators. 

Sources: https://jemisonfoundation.org



Dr. Regina Benjamin

Dr. Regina Marcia Benjamin was born October 26, 1956 in Mobile, AL. Benjamin was raised solely by her mother. Regina attended Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, where she was initiated into the Gamma Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, and where she later earned a bachelors in Chemistry in 1979. With the support of the prestigious National Health Service Corps scholarship, Benjamin matriculated into Morehouse School of Medicine in 1980. She then went on to earn her medical doctorate from the University of Alabama in 1984. Dr. Benjamin specialized in family medicine and completed her residency at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in 1987. Only three years out of residency, Dr. Benjamin established her own private practice, Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama. After receiving her Master of Business Administration from Tulane University she converted her office to a rural health clinic. In 1995 Dr. Benjamin became the first person below the age of 40 to be elected to the AMA’s board of trustees. From 1996 to 2002 she served on the board of Physicians for Human Rights, and in 1998 she received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. In July 2009 Benjamin was nominated by United States President Barack Obama to be the U.S. Surgeon General. 



Ms. Henrietta Lacks 

In 1951, a young mother of five named Henrietta Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of vaginal bleeding. Upon examination, renowned gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones discovered a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. At the time, The Johns Hopkins Hospital was one of only a few hospitals to treat poor African-Americans.

As medical records show, Mrs. Lacks began undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer. This was the best medical treatment available at the time for this terrible disease. A sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent to Dr. George Gey's nearby tissue lab. For years, Dr. Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each sample quickly died in Dr. Gey’s lab. What he would soon discover was that Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die, Mrs. Lacks' cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Today, these incredible cells— nicknamed "HeLa" cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names — are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine.

Although Mrs. Lacks ultimately passed away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, her cells continue to impact the world.

-This excerpt was taken from John Hopkins Medicine. More can be found at the link below.