Chronology of Achievements of African Americans in Medicine


Onesimus, an enslaved African, describes to Cotton Mather the African method of inoculation against smallpox. The technique, later used to protect American Revolutionary War soldiers, is perfected in the 1790’s by British doctor Edward Jenner’s use of a less virulent organism.


Dr. James Durham, born into slavery in 1762, buys his freedom and begins his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first African-American doctor in the United States. As a youngster, he was owned by a number of doctors, who taught him how to read and write, mix medicines, and serve and work with patients. Durham had a flourishing medical practice in New Orleans until 1801 when the city restricted his practice because he did not have a formal medical degree.


Dr. James Durham is invited to Philadelphia to meet Dr. Benjamin Rush, who wanted to investigate Durham’s reported success in treating patients with diphtheria. Dr. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of America’s foremost physicians, was so impressed that he personally read Durham’s paper on diphtheria before the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Durham returned to New Orleans in 1789, where he saved more yellow fever victims than any other physician (During an epidemic that killed thousands, he lost 11 of 64 patients).


Dr. James McCune Smith graduates from the University of Glasgow, becoming the first African American to earn a medical degree.


Dr. David Jones Peck becomes the first African-Amercan medical student to graduate from a medical school in the United States (Rush Medical College, Chicago, IL).


Augusta, GA: The Jackson Street Hospital is established as the first institution of record solely for the care of colored patients. The founders were a group of charitable minded whites led by Dr. Henry Fraser Campbell, University of Georgia School of Medicine. There was no colored staff in this three story structure, which housed fifty beds, operating quarters, and a lecture hall.


Freedmen’s Hospital is established in Washington, D.C., and is the only federally-funded health care facility for Blacks in the nation.

Born a slave in Georgia in 1848, Susie Baker (who later became known as Susie King Taylor) is the first African-American U.S. Army nurse during the Civil War. King served in a newly formed regiment of Black soldiers organized at Port Royal Island off the South Carolina coast by Major General David Hunter, commander of the Union’s Department of the South. After the war, she helped to organize a branch of the Women’s Relief Corps


Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African-American female to earn a medical degree, graduates from New England Female Medical College, Boston.


Robert Tanner Freeman is one of the first six graduates in dental medicine from Harvard University, thus becoming the first African American to receive an education in dentistry and a dental degree from an American medical school. (Freeman was born in 1847 to slave parents in North Carolina.)


Washington, DC: Howard University School of Medicine, established for the purpose of educating African-American doctors, opens to both black and white students, including women.


Dr. James Francis Shober earns his M.D. from Howard University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C. and later becomes the first known African-American physician with a medical degree to practice in North Carolina.


Mary Eliza Mahoney becomes the first African-American professional nurse, graduating from the New England Hospital for Women and Children (Now Dimock Community Health Center), Boston.


Atlanta, GA: The first school of record for Black student nurses is established at Spelman College.


Chicago, IL: Dr. Daniel Hale Williams establishes the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first Black-owned and first interracial hospital in the United States. Dr. Austin Maurice Curtis, Sr. (a Raleigh, North Carolina native) becomes the hospital’s first intern.


Chicago, IL: At Provident Hospital, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performs the first successful operation on a human heart. (The patient, a victim of a chest stab wound, survived and lived a normal life for twenty years after the operation.)


Atlanta, GA: The National Medical Association is founded, since African Americans are barred from other established medical groups.

Philadelphia, PA: Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell founds the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School for Nurses.


Saint Agnes Hospital established in Raleigh, North Carolina on the grounds of St. Augustine’s College. Despite obvious handicaps, it was referred to in 1922 as the “only well equipped hospital for Negroes between Washington and New Orleans, serving not only North Carolina, but adjacent Virginia and South Carolina.” The hospital closed in April 1961 after nearly 65 years of service. Source: Journal of the National Medical Association, 53(5):439-446; Sept. 1961.

Nashville, TN: Dr. John Henry Jordan, a son of slaves, graduates from Meharry Medical College, defying his father and the ways of the Deep South. He was the first Black doctor in Coweta County, Georgia, and built the first Black hospital in the county.


Washington, DC: The Washington Society of Colored Dentists, the first organization of Black dentists, is founded.


Durham, NC: Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore convinces Washington Duke to donate money for the construction of Lincoln Hospital.


Alois Alzheimer selects five foreign visiting students at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital, University of Munich, as his graduate research assistants, including African American Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller. After leaving Germany in 1906, Fuller continued his research on degenerative disorders of the brain and was a widely published pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease research. At the time of his death in 1953, the only acknowledgment of his Fuller’s work was an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree awarded in 1943 by his alma mater, Livingstone College, Salisbury, NC.


The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) is established. (NACGN was dissolved in 1951, when its members voted to merge with the American Nurses Association.)


Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist, publishes the first comprehensive clinical review of all Alzheimer’s cases that have been reported up to this time. He was the first to translate into English much of Alois Alzheimer’s work on the disease that bears his name.


The NAACP awards Dr. Ernest E. Just the first Springarn Medal for his pioneering research on fertilization and cell division.


Camp Upton, NY: Dr. Louis T. Wright, a pioneer in clinical antibiotic research, develops a better technique (intradermal injection) for vaccinating soldiers against smallpox.


Dr. Meta L. Christy, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, is the world’s first African-American osteopathic physician.


Boston, MA: Dr. William Augustus Hinton develops the Hinton Test for diagnosing syphilis. (He later develops an improved version, the Hinton-Davies Test, in 1931.)


Dr. William Augustus Hinton’s book, Syphilis and Its Treatment, is the first medical textbook written by an African American to be published.


Sara Delaney’s article entitled “Bibliotherapy in a Hospital” is published in the February issue of Opportunity magazine. (Delaney, chief librarian at the U.S. Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, was a pioneer in the use of selected reading to aid in the treatment of patients.)


Dr. Charles R. Drew presents his thesis, “Banked Blood,” at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. The thesis covers two years of blood research, including the discovery that plasma could replace whole blood transfusions.


Vivien Theodore Thomas, laboratory researcher and surgical technician, makes history with Dr. Alfred Blalock as co-developer of the “Blalock” clamp, the first clamp for temporary occlusion of the pulmonary artery which is used in the first successful surgical treatment for “Blue-Baby” Syndrome in 1944. Although Thomas, who had previously been a carpenter and janitor, never completed his original plans for medical school, he was supervisor of Johns Hopkins surgical laboratories for 35 years and later appointed instructor in surgery at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. The 2004 HBO television movie “Something the Lord Made” was based on his role in the historic Blue Baby surgery, as was the 2003 public television documentary, Partners of the Heart.Partial Partial Source: African-American Contributions to Medicine — part 6 of 7


A group of African-American medics land on Utah Beach/Normandy on D-Day + 4, as part of a nine-person, all Black team of medics, which included two officers. Serving with the 687th and the 530th Medical Detachments, they spent most of the rest of the European campaign attached to the 3rd Army while participating in many of its major actions.

Leonidas Harris Berry becomes the first black physician on staff at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, IL, but he continued to fight for an attending position, which he finally received in 1963. He also chaired a Chicago commission in the 1950s that worked to make hospitals more inclusive for black physicians and increase facilities in underserved parts of the city. Berry helped to organize the “Flying Black Medics” in 1970, a group of practitioners who flew to Cairo from Chicago to bring medical care and health education to those remote communities


Dr. Helen O. Dickens becomes the first African-American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.


African American Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer and treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor took cells from her cervix without her knowledge. These cells were found to be unique in that they could be kept alive and would also grow indefinitely. Since that time, Lacks’ cells, now known as HeLa cells (in Lacks’ honor), have been cultured and used in experiments ranging from determining the long-term effects of radiation to testing the live polio vaccine. Read more


Dr. Peter Murray Marshall is installed as the President of the New York County Medical Society, becoming the first African American to lead a unit of the American Medical Association.


Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods becomes the first African-American woman appointed to the National Advisory General Medical Services Council. In this position, she addressed the need to improve science education and research opportunities at minority institutions.


Dr. Jane C. Wright, pioneer in chemotherapy research and daughter of Dr. Louis T. Wright (see “1917”), is appointed an Associate Dean and Professor of Surgery at New York Medical College. At the time, this was the highest post ever attained by an African-American woman in medical administration.


Prentiss Harrison is the first African American to be formally educated as a Physician Assistant. Prentiss graduated from Duke’s Physician Assistant (PA) Program which was established in 1965 as the first of its kind in the nation.


Alfred Day Hershey, PhD, geneticist, becomes the first African American to share a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He received the award for his research on the replication and genetic structure of viruses. Please note: Although Alfred Day Hershey appears in African American Firsts in Science and Technology (1999), there is controversy regarding his ethnicity, as there is no reference to him being African American in his New York Times Obiturary.


Joyce Nichols is the first female (and African-American female) to be formally educated as a Physician Assistant. Nichols graduated from Duke’s Physician Assistant (PA) Program which was established in 1965 as the first of its kind in the nation. As a Charter member of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) and the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants, Nichols helped write the bylaws for both organizations and was instrumental in establishing the AAPA’s Minority Affairs Committee.


Patricia Bath is the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, which led to her appointment two years later as the first woman faculty member at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. Source: African-American Trailblazers in Medicine & Medical Research


Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, is the only Black medical school founded in the United States during the 20th century. It is among one of the nation’s leading educators of primary care physicians and has been recognized as the top institution among U.S. medical schools for their social mission which emphasizes underserved urban and rural populations.
Dr. Louis Wade Sullivan, founding dean and president of Morehouse School of Medicine, is also noted as the serving as the Secretary of the Dept. of Health & Human Services under the George H. W. Bush Administration, where he directed the creation of the Office of Minority Programs in the National Institutes of Health’s Office of the Director.


Patricia Bath, a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of blindness and an advocate for eyesight as a basic human right, founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. Source: African-American Trailblazers in Medicine & Medical Research


Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall becomes the first African-American President of the American Cancer Society.


Alexa Canady becomes the first African-American woman neurosurgeon in the U.S. She served as chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987-2001. Source: African-American Trailblazers in Medicine & Medical Research

Dr. Yvonne Thornton becomes the first black woman board-certified in special competency in maternal-fetal medicine. The challenges surrounding Thornton and her sisters’ struggle to obtain higher education were detailed in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters: A Black Family’s Astounding Success Story, which was later made into a movie. Source: African-American Contributions to Medicine — part 3 of 7


Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston’s groundbreaking study of sickle-cell disease led to a nationwide screening program to test newborns for immediate treatment.

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