Health & Fitness

Black pioneers in medical writing

February is Black History Month in America. It’s a month where the achievements of Black pioneers are celebrated and their struggles acknowledged.

This post highlights the immense contribution African-Americans have brought to the medical writing profession.

1. James McCune Smith, MD

James McCune Smith was born to an enslaved mother in 1813. From a young age, he was a studious student and exhibited a talent for mastering multiple languages. However, universities in the U.S. refused to admit him because of his race. He was able to receive funding to attend the University of Glasgow where he graduated medical school at the top of his class. He was the first African-American to publish a case report and the first Black physician to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

He was a staunch abolitionist and used his writing to combat false scientific beliefs justifying racism and claiming Black inferiority. Fredrick Douglas said of him, “No man in this country more thoroughly understands the whole struggle between freedom and slavery than does Dr. Smith, and his heart is as broad as his understanding.”

2. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD was born in Delaware in 1831. Despite the overwhelming predominance of racism and sexism, Rebecca attended and graduated from New England Female Medical College in 1864. She was the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree.

After the Civil War, Dr Crumpler felt a calling to move to Richmond, Virginia and care for formerly enslaved people. Freed African-Americans were more likely to face discrimination from white doctors. The majority of her patients were also poor and unable to receive medical treatment.  Dr Crumpler is also the first African-American to publish a medical text, A Book of Medical Discourses (1883) detailing illnesses in women and children.

3. Solomon Carter Fuller, MD

Solomon Carter Fuller, MD was born in Liberia and immigrated to America at the age of 17. In 1897, he graduated from Boston University School of Medicine becoming the first African-American psychiatrist to be recognized by the American Psychological Association. While working in the labs of the renowned German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, Dr Fuller identified specific biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Fuller was the first to translate Dr Alzheimer’s work and case reports from the original German into English. He was also the first to publish a comprehensive review of existing Alzheimer’s cases. Today, he’s recognized most for his trailblazing research into neurodegenerative diseases.

4. William Augustus Hinton

William Augustus Hinton was born in Chicago, Illinois to formerly enslaved parents. He overcame tremendous barriers to obtain his medical degree from Harvard University. Due to his race, he was barred from pursuing a career in surgery. He became a pathologist performing autopsies on patients with syphilis.

Dr Hinton developed two new testing methods to diagnose syphilis and became a leading expert in the field. One of the tests he developed with his colleague was aptly named the Davies-Hinton test for detecting syphilis. His extensive knowledge of the disease was compiled into his medical textbook, Syphilis and Its Treatment; which became widely renowned in his time.

After many years, serving as an associate teacher at Harvard Medical School, Dr Hinton was promoted to Clinical Professor to Bacteriology and Immunology in 1949. He was the first African-American full professor at Harvard.

5. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD

Marilyn Hughes Gaston knew from a young age she wanted to be a doctor but she was discouraged from pursuing it because she was poor and Black. She was persisted and completed her medical degree in 1964 from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

In 1986, she published revolutionary research on sickle cell anaemia in newborns, finding that early intervention could result in life-saving outcomes for infants. Her findings led to a national sickle cell screening program in newborns. Dr Gaston has the distinct honour of being the first female African-American physician to be appointed to direct a Public Health Service Bureau.

Each of these individuals greatly contributed to the advancements of medicine and public health through their research and professional writing. In light of the extraordinary obstacles they faced, their heroic achievements serve as a great example for health and medical writers all over the world.

Here are some references on these Black pioneers for further reading.

  1. America’s First Black Physician Sought to Heal a Nation’s Persistent Illness (Smithsonian Mag)
  2. Dr Rebecca Lee Crumpler (National Park Service)
  3. On World Alzheimer’s Day, the Black doctor who helped decode the disease (Washington Post)
  4. William Augustus Hinton(1883-1959) (Black Past)
  5. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame)

About Hafsa Abdirahman MPH

Hafsa Abdirahman MPH is a public health scientist and freelance medical writer and editor. She believes that access to evidence-based, quality health information can save lives and she’s worked throughout her career to put this belief into practice. You can find her at Health Culturally where she blogs about health issues facing the Somali community. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Hafsa is a member of the Health Writer Hub Alumni.

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