Celebrating Black History Month—A Medical Legacy

February 22, 2022
Inside HR
Diversity and Inclusion
Read time: 3 mins

Each year, themes for the observance of Black History Month are chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This organization was founded by Carter G. Woodson, a noted scholar, in 1926. Woodson originally helped establish Negro History Week, which later expanded to encompass the entire month of February.

This year's observance revolves around Black health and wellness, including an exploration of the legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine. In honor of this year’s theme, here are a few of the life-changing medical contributions made by Black Americans.

Daniel Hale Williams (1856 – 1931)
Williams founded the first Black-owned hospital and nurses training center, Provident Hospital, in Chicago in 1891. In 1893, he performed the first successful open-heart surgery.

Percy L. Julian (1899 – 1875)
With a master’s degree in chemistry, Julian specialized in synthesizing plants to treat a variety of ailments. He developed a process used to make the drug physostigmine, used for the treatment of glaucoma.

Charles Drew (1904 – 1950)
A renowned physician and medical researcher, Drew was the first Black surgeon examiner of the American Board of Surgery. He revolutionized medicine by creating a system that allowed the immediate and safe transfusion of blood plasma.

Jane Cooke Wright (1919 – 2013)
Wright was an accomplished surgeon and revolutionary cancer researcher whose work with chemotherapy transformed it from a treatment of last resort to a feasible therapy option.

Henrietta Lacks (1920 – 1951)
Henrietta Lacks was not a physician or a medical researcher. She was a patient with special cells that had the unique ability to thrive and multiply in a laboratory setting. During her short lifetime and at the time of her death, Lacks was not aware of the contributions her cells would make to modern medical science. The HeLa cells, named using the first two letters of her first and last names, have been used to develop the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and in key discoveries used to treat cancer, infectious disease, and immunity—most recently with vaccinations for COVID-19.

Otis Boykin (1920 – 1982)
Boykin was an inventor with 26 patents to his name at the time of his death. One of the most notable is a control unit used in pacemakers that helps create a steady heart rate.

Patricia Bath (1942 – 2019)
Bath was the first African American female to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent for inventing the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment in 1986.

These are only a few of the amazing health and wellness contributions made by Black Americans, and if one pauses to think about only these few, my guess is that we all have been impacted in some way by these advancements. Whether we’ve received a polio vaccination, know someone with a pacemaker, or have a relative who has needed a blood transfusion, let us stop for a moment of thanks for their brilliance.