11 Black Innovators who Shaped the Future of Healthcare

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Pioneering treatment for congenital heart conditions. A procedure to remove cataracts. Revolutionary preservation of blood plasma. These are just a few ways Black medical innovators have advanced healthcare.  

Black female scientist looks in a microscope.

As we commemorate Black History Month this February, we invite you to join us in recognizing and celebrating  African Americans across the nation who have left an indelible mark on our country’s history by overcoming adversity and barriers to shape future generations. Today, we continue to see the impacts of countless pioneering Black physicians and scientists on the healthcare industry. Here are a few notable figures who advanced medical knowledge, improved treatments and advocated for health equity:  

  • Dr. Patricia Bath: Groundbreaking Ophthalmologist – Dr. Bath was a groundbreaking ophthalmologist who was an innovative research scientist and advocate for blindness prevention, treatment and cures. She invented the laserphaco probe, a device and technique to remove cataracts. Dr. Bath founded the non-profit American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, and as the first Black female physician to receive a medical patent, Bath’s inspiring legacy continues through “community ophthalmology,” which works to address threatening eye conditions in historically underserved communities. Sources: National Institutes of Health: Changing the Face of Medicine | Patricia E. Bath (nih.gov); Dr. Patricia Bath website: Home - Dr. Patricia Bath (drpatriciabath.com) 
  • Otis Boykin: Improved the Pacemaker – The pacemaker—a medical device that detects when your heartbeat is irregular or too slow—is a life-saving device that many Americans rely on to stay healthy. Otis Boykin, who was born in 1920, was an engineer and avid inventor. One of his most notable inventions was a control unit that improved the pacemaker. Throughout his career, Mr. Boykin patented 26 devices. Sources: Biography: Otis Boykin Biography 
  • Kizzmekia S. Corbett, PhD: One of the Leading Scientists to Develop the Moderna COVID- 19 Vaccine – Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corgett-Helaire, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University, played an instrumental role in the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Corbett’s team for the National Institutes of Health helped develop mRNA-1273, which was later used by Moderna, Inc. In Phase 3 clinical trial, the vaccine was shown to be 94.1% effective and has been approved for use against COVID-19 in multiple countries. She has 15 years of experience studying dengue virus, RSV, influenza and coronaviruses, and her research has received several prestigious awards. Source: Harvard University  
  • Dr. Charles Drew: “Father of the Blood Bank” – Dr. Drew was a prominent African American physician, surgeon and medical researcher. He revolutionized the field of blood transfusion by developing techniques for the long-term preservation of blood plasma. His work laid the foundation for the establishment of large-scale blood banks, saving countless lives during World War II and beyond. Sources: National Library of Medicine: Biographical Overview | Charles R. Drew - Profiles in Science (nih.gov); American Chemical Society: Charles Richard Drew - American Chemical Society (acs.org)
  • Dr. Joycelyn Elders: The First African American and only the Second Woman to Head the U.S. Public Health Service – Dr. Elders, a pediatrician, served as the 15th Surgeon General of the United States. She focused on public health issues, including advocating for comprehensive sex education, reproductive health and the treatment of substance use disorder. Dr. Elders has been a prominent voice for preventive healthcare and health education. Sources: National Institutes of Health: Changing the Face of Medicine | M. JoycelynElders (nih.gov); Harvard University: M. Joycelyn Elders, MD (First African American and the Second Woman to Become U.S. Surgeon General) | Perspectives Of Change (harvard.edu) 
  • Daniel Hale Williams, MD: Performed One of the First Successful Open-Heart Surgeries—And Founded the First Black-Owned Hospital  – Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first physicians to perform open-heart surgery successfully, paving the way for countless future surgeons. In 1891, he founded Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first Black-owned hospital and first non-segregated hospital in the United States. He was also the first Black member of the American College of Surgeons. Sources: American Heart Association: The legacy of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a heart surgery pioneer; Biography: Daniel Hale Williams Biography 
  • Dr. Percy Julian: Pioneering Chemist – Dr. Julian was a pioneering chemist who made significant contributions to the synthesis of medicinal compounds. His work was instrumental in the development of affordable and mass-produced synthetic cortisone, a crucial component in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Sources: American Chemical Society: Percy Lavon Julian - American Chemical Society (acs.org); Science History Institute: Percy Lavon Julian | Science History Institute 
  • Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: First African American Woman to Earn a Medical Degree – Dr. Crumpler made history as the first African American woman to obtain a medical degree in the United States. Graduating in 1864, she dedicated her career to providing healthcare to women and children. Dr. Crumpler's groundbreaking achievements paved the way for future generations of Black women in medicine. Sources: Association of Women in Science: Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to obtain an M.D. degree. (awis.org); PBS Newshour: Celebrating Rebecca Lee Crumpler, first African-American woman physician | PBS NewsHour 
  • James McCune Smith, MD: Paved the Way for Future Black Physicians – Like many spaces in American history, practicing medicine has long been an unequal playing field for Black physicians. Dr. James McCune Smith, however, was determined to right this wrong. In 1837, he earned his medical degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Later, upon returning to New York, he made history as the first Black man to practice medicine with a medical degree in the United States—paving the way for future generations of Black physicians. Using his training, Dr. Smith was committed to refuting misconceptions around race in healthcare. Sources: New-York Historical Society: James McCune Smith Biography; National Library of Medicine: The education and medical practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813-1865), first Black American to hold a medical degree 
  • Vivien Thomas, LL.D.: Heart Surgery Pioneer – Vivien Thomas was a skilled surgical technician and researcher who developed techniques and tools that would lead to today's modern heart surgery. Working alongside Dr. Alfred Blalock, Thomas helped pioneer procedures for treating congenital heart conditions. Despite many racial and educational challenges, his contributions transformed cardiovascular care and Thomas was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1976 from Johns Hopkins University. Sources: American College of Cardiology:  Just One More | Vivien Thomas: Remembering a Pioneering Legend - American College of Cardiology (acc.org); Vanderbilt University: Vivien T. Thomas, LL.D. | Medical Scientist Training Program | Vanderbilt University   
  • Miles Vandarhurst Lynk, MD: Co-Founded the First Professional Organization for Black Physicians – Dr. Miles Vandarhurst Lynk was a trailblazer in the healthcare industry. He not only established but served as the publisher and editor of the first Black medical journal—The Medical and Surgical Observer—in Dec. 1892, a mere month after graduating from medical school. In 1895, Dr. Lynk would go on to serve a primary role in the creation of the National Medical Association, now the nation’s oldest and largest organization representing African American physicians and healthcare professionals in the U.S. Sources: National Medical Association and National Library of Medicine 
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