We often talk about Black women as a powerful force in our culture, leading communities, political movements, social justice, and more. Black women have had a strong and lasting affect in the field of science — helping to shape medicine throughout history.
During the horrors of enslavement, their forced labor was used to deliver, nurse and care for the children of their white slave owners. From slavery to present day, medicine and science are forever changed because of Black women, who led progress and advanced health equity — thriving even in the face of racist efforts to exclude them.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the brilliant contributions and many achievements of the following Black women in medicine.
In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Along with other Black health care workers in the racist post-Civil War South, she cared for people who were formerly enslaved who otherwise would have had no access to medical care. In 1883, with A Book of Medical Discourses, she became one of the first Black people to publish a medical book.
Martha Minerva Franklin was a registered nurse who established the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Founded in 1908, NACGN was dedicated to making the profession equitable for Black nurses. The organization changed many of the discriminatory barriersBlack nurses faced. It eventually merged with the American Nurses Association.
Biddy Mason was born into slavery on a Mississippi plantation. Many years later in 1855, as a mother living in indentured servitude in Los Angeles, she fought for her and her family’s freedom in court and won. Biddy Mason then worked as a successful midwife and nurse. During a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s, she risked her life to care for the sick. She also delivered hundreds of babies and later became one of the first Black landowners in Los Angeles.
A leader in the movement for Black women’s liberation, in 1974 Byllye Avery co-founded the Gainesville Women's Health Center and alternative birthing center in Gainesville, Florida. The center addresses racial inequalities and improves the health of Black women in that area. She has dedicated her career to confronting disparities in the health care system.
In 1997, Donna Christian-Christensen became the first woman physician and first Black physician to serve in Congress. She served nine terms as a Representative of the Virgin Islands. She is committed to addressing issues that influence Americans’ quality of life.
Born into poverty in rural Arkansas in 1933, Dr. Joycelyn Elders was the first Black person and only the second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service. She has published hundreds of papers on pediatric endocrinology with a focus on juvenile diabetes, including the risks that very young pregnant women with diabetes face.. She is a long-time advocate of sexual and reproductive health. In 1993, Dr. Elders became the 15th surgeon general of the United States.
As we recognize the work of the Black women on this list, we also know that there are countless other Black people who have made our lives healthier, safer, and more equitable. Let’s continue to support and lift up Black women and all Black people by donating to, volunteering at, or sharing information about organizations that empower and uplift Black communities, like Color of Change, Trans Women of Color Collective, Black Girls Code, and Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
Header image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
Tags: Black History Month