Over the years, we have seen many breakthroughs in the field of medicine. Many of these important advances were accomplished by African Americans who were able to successfully change the medical field for the betterment of our society, in spite of the significant challenges they faced. In honor of Black History Month, we explore four African American medical pioneers who broke racial barriers to help advance the field of medicine. They were the first to perform a successful open-heart surgery, develop a method for long-term storage of blood plasma, lead a sickle cell disease screening program for newborns, and improve eye health for millions.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856 - 1931) & Heart Surgery

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams practiced medicine at a time when there were no other black physicians in Chicago. Dr. Williams, a highly skilled surgeon, is regarded as the first African American cardiologist. Even though he treated patients regardless of skin color, the racial barriers of that time barred African Americans from being admitted to hospitals and denied black doctors from employment as hospital staff. Despite this, Dr. Williams established the nation’s first black-owned interracial hospital, Provident Hospital in Chicago. It offered training to African American interns, established America’s first school for black nurses, and was open to all regardless of race. In 1893, Dr. Williams successfully repaired the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart) of a man who had been stabbed, an operation considered to be the first documented successful open-heart surgery on a human. He went on to co-found the National Medical Association and became the first black physician admitted to the American College of Surgeons. These institutions, and the legions of physicians he trained, are a testament to a life of generosity and vision almost impossible to conceive in today’s times.

Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1904 - 1950) & Blood Plasma

Dr. Charles Richard Drew, known as the “Father of the Blood Bank,” was a physician, researcher, and surgeon who revolutionized our understanding of blood plasma. Dr. Drew developed a method for processing and storing blood plasma that allowed it to be dehydrated, shipped great distances, and then reconstituted just before transfusions. Before this, perishable, unprocessed blood would become unusable after about a week. His research on blood transfusions followed the discovery that human blood could be categorized into four main types: A, B, AB, and O. Dr. Drew’s developments came at a crucial time, and his work during World War II allowed blood storage for transfusions that saved thousands of lives. His findings and standards for collecting, processing, and storing blood led to his appointment as head of the “Blood for Britain” project, in which blood from NYC hospitals was collected and exported as plasma to Great Britain during the second world war. Historians credit this effort with saving thousands of lives, and some have even gone on to suggest it was instrumental in the Allied victory. After this campaign, Dr. Drew became director for the blood bank of the American Red Cross and organized the largest blood drive in history for the US Army and Navy.

Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston (1939 - present) & Sickle Cell Disease

Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston has dedicated her entire professional life to medical care for poor and minority families and simultaneously has made major contributions to the understanding of about sickle cell disease (SCD). Dr. Gaston first became interested in the problems of children with SCD at her internship at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964. After a child was found to have SCD, she set out to learn everything she could about this debilitating disorder. She won multiple federal grants to study the disease and notably established essential protocols for routine screening. After working at the National Institute for Health as a fellow in blood disorders, she later became the deputy chief of the Sickle Cell Disease Branch. In 1986, Dr. Gaston published the results of a groundbreaking study, which showed both the benefits of screening for SCD at birth and the effectiveness of giving children long-term penicillin treatment to prevent potentially fatal septic infections. Her research led to a national sickle cell disease screening program for newborns. Later, Dr. Gaston became the first black female physician to be appointed director of the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health Care, and the second black woman to serve as assistant surgeon general. She went on to achieve the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service.

Dr. Patricia Era Bath (1942 - 2019) & Ophthalmology

Dr. Patricia Era Bath, a researcher, ophthalmologist, and laser scientist, was a strong advocate for blindness prevention, treatment, and cure. She was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. Later, while working in the eye clinics at Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, she first became aware of a growing community health problem. After conducting a short study, Dr. Bath concluded that the high prevalence of blindness among blacks was due to the lack of ophthalmic care; as a result, she proposed community ophthalmology. This discipline is a worldwide system in which trained eye volunteers visit senior centers and day care programs to test the vision and screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and other serious eye conditions. Through this community outreach program, under-served populations whose eye conditions would otherwise have gone untreated received a better chance of preventing blindness. In 1976, Dr. Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, which established that “eyesight is a basic human right.” Dr. Bath also invented the Laserphaco Probe, which harnessed laser technology to provide a non-invasive solution to cataracts and greatly improved treatment by making it less painful and more precise for patients in 1986. The device was later patented in 1988, making Dr. Bath the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

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