The health and wellness industry has advanced tremendously over the last century, and we have many trailblazers to thank for that.
In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting 12 Black women and men who have made groundbreaking improvements that have forever altered the care we receive.
Dr. James McCune Smith, MD (1813-1865)
After being denied admission into colleges in America due to racist practices, Dr. James McCune 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 in 1837, where Dr. Smith was born into slavery, he became the first Black doctor to establish his own medical practice and pharmacy in the United States.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831-1895)
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was a nurse for many years before attending and then graduating from the New England Female Medical College located in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1864, making her the first Black woman to complete a medical degree in the country. She later opened her own medical practice in Boston.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, MD (1856-1931)
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was passionate not only about medicine but also about championing Black medical professionals. Case in point: He founded Provident Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1891, the first interracial hospital and nursing school in the country. Dr. Williams was also one of the first surgeons to perform a successful open-heart surgery.
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, MD (1872-1953)
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller earned his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine and became the first Black American psychiatrist. His most notable achievement was uncovering a deeper understanding of Alzheimer's disease and its treatment. He worked alongside psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer himself in Munich conducting research. Fuller was also the first to translate the trailblazing learnings into English.
Dr. Ruth Ella Moore, Ph.D (1903-1994)
Dr. Ruth Ella Moore was a pioneer in the natural sciences. She became the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. in the field — in Bacteriology to be exact — 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, was pivotal in finding a cure years later.
Dr. Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904-1950)
Surgeon Dr. Charles Richard Drew, also recognized as the "father of blood banking," was at the forefront of blood preservation. He innovated the way blood plasma was stored in blood banks. His 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.
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, MD (1919-2013)
A true trailblazer in the field of oncology, Dr. Jane Cooke 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 at New York Medical College and the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society.
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (b.1939)
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston undoubtedly makes the list of Black pioneers who changed healthcare for many reasons. Her groundbreaking research led to implementing a sickle cell disease screening program for newborns around the country, and proved penicillin to effectively prevent infection in those with the disease. Moreover, she was the first Black female director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care controlling a $5 billion budget and serving millions of patients. Dr. Gaston also received the National Medical Association scroll of merit for her contributions to public health.
Dr. Patricia E. Bath, MD (1942-2019)
Ophthalmologist Dr. Patricia E. 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 was the first African-American to finish an ophthalmology residency. She was also the first woman to hold the position of chair of ophthalmology at a medical school in the United States. And, she became the first Black female doctor to hold a medical patent for a device she invented for use in cataract surgery.
Dr. Mae Jemison, MD (b. 1956)
Dr. Mae Jemison was the first Black female astronaut to venture into space, but she was most passionate about improving global health. Before her work with NASA, Jemison earned her medical degree from Cornell University Medical College. During her incredible career, she has also worked as a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa, teaching and conducting medical research. In addition, Jemison founded Jemison Group — a consulting firm creating telecommunications systems 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 United States, 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.
Dr. Kizzimekia Corbett, Ph.D. (b. 1986)
Dr. Kizzimekia Corbett earned her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014. Less than a decade later, she's made major strides in healthcare as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where she's helped develop and produce COVID-19 vaccines. During her career, she's also developed a universal influenza vaccine that's currently undergoing clinical trials.