October marks Black History Month. It is so important that we celebrate Black pioneers who have helped to clear the path for others to follow.
We’re celebrating by raising awareness of the pioneering men and women who have helped to change the course of healthcare and race relations across the world, past and present. They invented first-of-their-kind medical devices, developed innovative surgical procedures, paved the way for improved patient access to quality care, and raised awareness about quality-of-life issues.
Michelle Obama (b. 1964)
As the first Black First Lady (2009–2017) of the United States, Michelle Obama devoted much of her energy to promoting physical health. She brought attention to the childhood obesity epidemic with her Let’s Move initiative, which encouraged young people to exercise and eat nutritious food. When Obama launched the program in 2010, she said, “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake.”
Obama also worked to increase access to healthier food and improve food labeling. She championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which promotes healthier school lunches and funds meal programs for poor children. Along with current First Lady Jill Biden, Obama launched the Joining Forces program to support veterans and their families with access to health services. She is also a strong advocate for women’s health issues.
Jane Cooke Wright (1919–2013)
The daughter of one of the first African American graduates of Harvard Medical School, Wright grew up with a keen interest in healthcare. Her father, Dr. Louis Wright, was also the first Black doctor appointed to a staff position at a municipal hospital in New York City, and in 1929, the city hired him as police surgeon — the first African American to hold that position.
After earning her medical degree, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright worked alongside her father at the Cancer Research Foundation in Harlem, which her father established in 1948. Together, father and daughter researched chemotherapy drugs that led to remissions in patients with leukaemia and lymphoma.
James McCune Smith (1813–1865)
Born into slavery in New York City in 1813, as a young man James McCune Smith set his sights on becoming a doctor. He was denied admission to American colleges because he was Black, but he was able to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees by age 24.
Dr. Smith had a keen interest in languages, mastering Latin, Greek, and French, and developed a working knowledge of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and German. When he returned to New York City in 1837, he established his own medical office and pharmacy at 93 West Broadway — making him the first African American doctor with his own practice in the United States. As a physician, he treated both Black and white patients, and also served as the chief doctor at the New York City Colored Orphan Asylum.
Smith devoted much of his life to working with abolitionists to end the enslavement of Black people in the South. He died about three weeks before the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery.
Dr John Alcindor (1973-1924)
John Alcindor was a gifted doctor who was respected and trusted by his many patients. Originally from Trinidad, John graduated with a medical degree from Edinburgh University in 1899. He then worked in London hospitals for several years before going into practice on his own.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, he naturally wanted to use his skills to help with the war effort. But despite his qualifications and experience, he was rejected outright by the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914 because of his ‘colonial origin’.
Brushing aside the army rejection, he instead joined 90,000 others in signing up as a British Red Cross volunteer. Throughout the long years of the conflict, he helped countless wounded soldiers at London railway stations as they returned from the battlefields.
Deservedly, he was later awarded a Red Cross Medal for his life-saving work.
Mae Jemison (b. 1956)
Dr. Mae Jemison is most famous for becoming the first Black woman astronaut to go into space, in 1992. Jemison, however, is also a trained physician who has dedicated her life to improving global health.
Jemison joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and worked as a medical officer for two years in Africa. Her work in the Peace Corps taught her about healthcare in developing countries. Later, as an astronaut, she learned about satellite telecommunications. She combined those two skill sets to form the Jemison Group, which develops telecommunications systems to improve healthcare delivery in developing countries.