Women’s History Month: Five Black Medical Pioneers Who Changed History

Before biomedicine became a dominant practice, Black women were making their mark in the medical field. They were trailblazers, who persevered against racism to change the course of our health and history. This Women’s History Month, the We Can Do This COVID-19 public education campaign is happy to honor these women and their contributions to society.

Learn their names. Remember their stories.

1. Dr. Rebecca Crumpler 

Dr. Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. She received her M.D.  in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College. Born in 1831 to Absolum Davis and Matilda Webber, Crumpler was raised by her aunt, who spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors, which many think influenced her career choice. By 1852 she moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she worked as a nurse for eight years. In 1860, she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College. Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston for a short while before moving to Richmond, Virginia, after the Civil War ended in 1865.
2. Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson 

Dr. Johnson became a widow at 24 after her husband’s sudden death. Still a young woman, she decided to move home to be with her family and go to medical school. After three years at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, she graduated with honors in 1891. Around the time of her graduation, Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, wrote to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania looking to fill a teaching position he had been struggling to find the perfect candidate for. Dr. Johnson accepted Washington’s offer and arrived began her residency in August 1891.

3. Dr. Sayde Curry 

Dr. Curry was the first African American woman to become a gastroenterologist in the United States. 
The youngest of four children, attended Johnson C. Smith University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry in 1963. Following graduation, she was employed briefly as a research technician in the Department of Pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. She later enrolled at Howard University College of Medicine where she graduated with the centennial class of 1967. She returned to Duke to complete an internship in internal medicine at Duke’s Medical Center and did her residency at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Dr. Curry became the first Black person to train in Duke University’s gastroenterology fellowship program and the first Black woman postgraduate trainee at Duke’s Medical Center.

4. Dr. Alexa Irene Canady 

Dr. Canady was the first Black woman to become a neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981. Canady earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Michigan in 1971 and graduated from its medical school in 1975. The summer after her junior year, she attended a genetic counseling clinic and fell in love with medicine. Later, she became the Chief of Neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, where she cared for young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, brain tumors and spine abnormalities. Her 20-year career in pediatric neurosurgery wrought her in as the first Black woman in many of her workplaces.

5. Dr. Jocelyn Elders

Dr. Joycelyn Elders was a U.S. Surgeon General appointed by President William (Bill) Clinton. Elders’ path to a medical career was unique. At age 15, she attended Philander Smith College, a historically Black liberal arts college in Arkansas. That same year, she decided she wanted to become a doctor. So, after graduation in 1952, she joined the Army where she was trained as a physical therapist in Texas and served at Army hospitals in San Francisco and Denver. In 1956, Elders entered the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock on the GI Bill, and in 1960 she was the only woman to graduate from that institution. She went on to complete an internship at the University of Minnesota and returned to Arkansas to practice pediatrics.

The odds were stacked against each of these outstanding Black women, yet they rose above challenge after challenge, making great strides in a field that was supposed to be off-limits to them. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let’s remember to honor their strength and tenacity.