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Black History Month: Honoring African-American Pioneers of Medicine

Black History Month: Honoring African-American Pioneers of Medicine

It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that black doctors were reluctantly accepted at “white-only” medical facilities and schools. Still, many brave medical pioneers were born of this atmosphere of adversity, rising to meet the many challenges that plagued the profession.

In honor of Black History Month, we’d love to introduce you to some of the most brilliant minds in medicine:

Daniel Hale Williams: Surgical Pioneer

Dr. Williams was the son of a free black man and a Scots-Irish woman living in Pennsylvania in the 1850s.

Because of his mixed ethnicity, Williams faced an uncertain future at a dangerous time in our country’s history. His father died when he was nine, forcing his mother to set him up with an apprenticeship as a shoemaker. Not long after, the boy ran away to join his mother in Illinois, then later joined his sister in Wisconsin.

It was in Wisconsin that a doctor named Palmer took Williams in as an apprentice for two years before his entrance into medical school at Chicago Medical College. Little did either of these men know that Dr. Williams would later become instrumental in the field of open-heart surgery. Working with Dr. Henry Dalton, who performed the first successful open-heart surgery in the U.S. just two years prior, Dr. Williams became the second doctor to complete a successful open-heart surgery. His patient, a knife wound victim, walked out of the hospital 50 days later.

Dr. Williams would be appointed surgeon-in-chief at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. that same year. He left that post in 1898 to marry and move to Chicago, but he spent the remainder of his life working to create more hospitals accessible to African-Americans and co-founding the National Medical Association for African American doctors. In 1913, he held the distinction of being a charter member and the only African-American member of the American College of Surgeons.

Alexa Canady: Inventor and Neurosurgeon

You couldn’t ask for a better modern example of an African-American medical pioneer than that of Dr. Alexa Canady.

Like Dr. Williams, she worked hard to provide excellent patient care by pioneering unique medical techniques, including developing new technology for neurosurgery patients. Born the daughter of a Michigan dentist in 1950, Canady’s early life hinted at the groundbreaker she’d become. She was consistently achieving high test scores and was nominated as a National Achievement Scholar in 1967.

She pursued a degree in zoology before entering medical school at the University of Michigan Medical School, where she graduated cum laude in 1975. After medical school, Dr. Canady became the first female African-American neurosurgery resident in the country. In 1981, Dr. Canady finished her studies and was officially the first African-American neurosurgeon, then later went on to hold the position of Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in 1987.

Despite an initially unwelcoming environment, Dr. Canady became an incredibly distinguished surgeon, specializing in spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, head trauma, and brain tumors. She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989, received the American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award in 1993 and 1994, and the Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School. She also holds three honorary degrees, awarded in 1997, 1999, and 2014.

William Augustus Hinton: Public Health Crusader

Dr. William Hinton may have been the child of former slaves when he was born in 1883, but neither he nor his family would let that stand in the way of his destiny.

Initially studying at the University of Kansas, Dr. Hinton would transfer to Harvard University and earn his BS there in 1905. He studied bacteriology and physiology at the University of Chicago in the summers while he taught in Tennessee and Oklahoma, finally enrolling in Harvard Medical School in 1909.

Dr. Hinton earned two prestigious scholarships to medical school and graduated with honors in 1912. He began teaching immunology and bacteriology in 1921 and started work on a test to accurately diagnose syphilis, a serious public health crisis of the time. Dr. Hinton’s test was endorsed by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1934 and was accepted as the gold standard for syphilis diagnosis worldwide shortly thereafter. It was commonly known as the “Hinton test.”

Not only was Dr. Hinton the first African-American professor at Harvard Medical School, but he was also the first African-American to publish a textbook. His masterpiece, “Syphilis and Its Treatment” was published in 1936 and became invaluable to managing this disease that so frequently killed its carriers. Dr. Hinton was elected a life member of the American Social Science Association in 1948 and continued to teach at Harvard several years beyond his retirement in 1950, as well as to serve as a special consultant to the U.S. Public Health Service.

These are just a few of the celebration-worthy African American medical pioneers in our country’s history. Their contributions allowed for real leaps in insight in many medical fields and helped to further open doors for minorities in every area of medicine.

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