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Jessica Estrada

Elizabeth Bacharach smiles at the camera

Elizabeth Bacharach

THE WELL Content Manager

Updated: 01/25/2023

From medical advancements to advocating for a more equitable system, these healthcare trailblazers deserve plenty of spotlight.

The health and wellness industry has advanced tremendously over the last century, and there are many trailblazers to thank for that.

In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting 12 Black scientists and practitioners from the United States who have made groundbreaking improvements that have forever altered the care we receive.

James McCune Smith, MD (1813-1865)

After being denied admission into colleges in America due to racist practices, Dr. Smith earned his medical degrees in Scotland — by the age of 24, no less — making him the first Black American to become a doctor. Furthermore, after returning to New York City — where he was born into slavery, according to Smithsonian Magazine — in 1837, he became the first Black doctor to establish his own medical practice and pharmacy in the US.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831-1895)

Dr. Crumpler was a nurse for many years before attending and graduating from the New England Female Medical College located in 1864 — an accomplishment that made her the first Black woman to complete a medical degree in the country. She later opened her own medical practice in Boston.

Daniel Hale Williams, MD (1856-1931)

Dr. Williams was passionate not only about medicine but also about championing Black medical professionals. Case in point: In 1891, he founded Provident Hospital Training School for Nurses, the first interracial hospital and nursing school in the country, and later performed the first successful open-heart surgery.

Solomon Carter Fuller, MD (1872-1953)

The first African American psychiatrist, Dr. Fuller is considered one of the people (if not the person) who did the most to uncover a deeper understanding of Alzheimer's disease and its treatment. He worked alongside psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer himself in Munich conducting research, and was the first to translate the trailblazing learnings into English, according to The Washington Post.

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Ruth Ella Moore, PhD (1903-1994)

Moore was a pioneer in the natural sciences. She became the first Black American to earn a PhD in the field and dedicated her career to understanding infectious diseases. Her research around tuberculosis, which was the second leading cause of death in the country at the time per the Microbiology Society, was pivotal in finding a cure years later.

Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904-1950)

Dr. Drew, also recognized as the "father of blood banking," was at the forefront of blood preservation, innovating the way blood plasma was stored in blood banks. The surgeon's work led him to direct the Blood for Britain Project during World War II, which helped save thousands of lives by shipping plasma to England. Dr. Drew also led the first American Red Cross Blood bank but later resigned in protest of the association's policy of segregating blood by race, according to a research article.

Jane Cooke Wright, MD (1919-2013)

A true trailblazer in the field of oncology, Dr. Wright worked alongside her father, Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright, one of the first Black graduates of Harvard Medical School who founded the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital. Together, the two researched chemotherapy drugs. She was also the first Black American woman appointed associate dean of a medical school — specifically, New York Medical College — and the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society.

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (b. 1939)

Dr. Gaston's groundbreaking research led to implementing a sickle cell disease screening program for newborns around the country, and proved penicillin to effectively prevent septic infection in those with the disease, according to the National Library of Medicine's Changing the Face of Medicine. Not only was she the first Black female director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care but she also received the National Medical Association Scroll of Merit for her contributions to public health.

Patricia E. Bath, MD (1942-2019)

Ophthalmologist Dr. Bath is best known for her work in blindness prevention and treatment and researching inequities in vision care for Black patients. Dr. Bath also had many firsts in her illustrious career. She also had many firsts in her illustrious career: the first African American to finish an ophthalmology residency, the first woman to hold the position of chair of ophthalmology at a US medical school and the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent (for a device she invented for treating cataracts).

Mae Jemison, MD (b. 1956)

Before working with NASA and becoming the first Black female astronaut to go to space, Dr. Jemison served as a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa, teaching and conducting medical research. The engineer, physician and astronaut is also the founder of The Jemison Group,® a consulting firm integrating socio-cultural issues into the design of engineering and science projects (e.g. satellite technology for healthcare delivery in developing countries).

Michelle Obama (b. 1964)

Among her many achievements and advocacy work in the health and wellness space during her tenure as the first Black First Lady of the US, Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move initiative aimed at driving awareness to the childhood obesity epidemic happening in the country and motivating youth to exercise more and eat healthier.

Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD (b. 1986)

Less than a decade after earning her PhD in microbiology and immunology, Corbett made major strides in healthcare as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, where she helped develop and produce COVID-19 vaccines. Today, the viral immunologist works as an assistant professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Louis Wade Sullivan, MD (b. 1933)

The only Black student in his class at Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Sullivan went on to serve on the faculty at the very institution before serving as the founding of dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine. He was later appointed by President George H.W. Bush to serve as the secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, where he lead the creation of the Office of Minority Programs in the National Institutes of Health’s Office of the Director.

Faye Wattleton, BSN (b. 1943)

A renowned advocate for reproductive rights, Wattleton holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a master’s in maternal and fetal infant care and a certification in midwifery. She was the first African American (and youngest!) president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and is credited with developing the organization's extensive national grassroots advocacy network — a powerful entity that’s played a role in blocking efforts to restrict and overturn women’s rights to choose, according to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Medication Abortion

Nancy Boyd-Franklin, PhD (b. 1950)

Psychologist Boyd-Franklin specializes in issues that affect Black families and communities, and has played a key role in developing new therapeutic approaches that address the mental health of Black Americans and that expand treatment options for this community, according to NYU School of Public Health. In addition to the development of community-based interventions for African American and other ethnic minority clients and families, Boyd-Franklin's work has also explored the psychological and therapeutic issues associated with HIV/AIDS.

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