Black Women Who Made Medical History

When we learn about the history of medicine, we usually hear about white men. Watson and DNA. Freud and psychology. Fleming and penicillin. You almost never hear about Black women. That is not because Black women haven’t participated in medicine — far from it.

Black women have been integral to the formation of modern medicine, from the enslaved women who were unwilling participants in the development of gynecology, to free Black women who became medical professionals when enslavement was still legal, to the former surgeon general of the United States. Black women have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to change and better American medicine — a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone who has a Black woman in their life. One of the first was Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who In 1860 — three years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation — was accepted into the New England Female Medical College. When she graduated four years later at age 33, she became the first Black woman in the United States to get an M.D. degree. In 1883, she published The Book of Medical Discourse, which comprised of medical advice for women and children. It was one of the first medical books written and published by a Black person of any gender in the United States.

But Dr. Crumpler wasn’t the only Black woman making medical history in the late 1800s. Mary Eliza Mahoney graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s Nursing School in 1879, at the age of 34. The school was the first professional nursing program in the country and as a member of its first graduating class, Mahoney became the first Black licensed nurse in the United States. Of the 42 students who enrolled at the beginning of the16 month course, only four graduated — and she was one of them. She’d previously been employed at the school for 15 years as a janitor, cook, and washerwoman.

Mahoney continued to fight for the rights of women and Black people for the rest of her life. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) and gave the opening speech at their first national convention. And in 1920, at age 76, she was at the front of the line to register to vote in Boston when the Nineteenth Amendment went into effect, granting women the right to vote.

Almost a century later, Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens had a range of firsts under her belt by the time she died in 2001 at the age of 92. Her parents — a formerly enslaved man and a women who did domestic work for a wealthy family — were insistent that Dr. Dickens get a solid education, but it’s doubtful they could have guessed how far she would go. In 1945, Dr. Dickens passed the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology board examinations, which made her the first Black woman in Philadelphia to be certified as an OB/GYN. In 1950, Dr. Dickens became the first Black woman to be admitted as a fellow to the American College of Surgeons. Throughout, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where she increased the number of students of color from three to 64 in five years. She also founded one of the first clinics for young mothers, the Teen Clinic, in 1967.

And finally, as the oldest of eight children born to impoverished field workers, a young Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders had to balance caring for her family, earning money, and going to school. She started working in the cotton fields of Arkansas at age 5 and her younger siblings worked extra jobs to help pay her bus fare to college.

After making her way through the military and medical school, Dr. Elders started to focus on growth, diabetes, and, eventually, sexual health. In 1987, when then-Governor Bill Clinton appointed her as the head of the Arkansas Department of Health, she stirred up conservative groups by advocating for K-12 sex education. In 1993, President Bill Clinton swore Dr. Elders in as the first Black and second woman Surgeon General of the United States. She was forced to resign a year later after she said at a UN conference on HIV/AIDS that masturbation was a “part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.”

These are just four women of many who pushed past childhood impoverishment, enslavement, and undoubtedly more racism and sexism than any one human should ever have to endure in a lifetime, to change American medicine. As we move deeper into the 21st century, this list will undoubtedly continue to grow. A cure for cancer? A vaccine for HIV? We wouldn’t put it past her.


About the Author

Emma McGowan is a veteran blogger, SFSI-endorsed sex educator, and Bustle's sex advice columnist at Sex IDK. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Startups.co, Unbound, Mashable, Broadly, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, Bedsider, and The Bold Italic. Follow her on Twitter @MissEmmaMcG.