In honor of Black History Month, we thought it would be most appropriate to recognize some of the most influential black leaders in healthcare of both our past and present. The individuals featured in this article not only deserve the recognition but have positively impacted our nation’s healthcare system. Without the contributions of these determined and fearless African American healthcare change-makers, modern day healthcare would look much different.
African American Healthcare Pioneers of the Past
Daniel Hale Williams, MD (1856-1931)
Daniel Hale Williams was an Equal Rights League and black civil rights activist and physician. In 1891, he opened the first black-owned hospital and medical facility in Chicago, IL. Provident Hospital was the first healthcare facility in Chicago to employ an interracial staff.
A few years later, at the age of 37, Dr. Williams was the first physician to successfully complete open-heart surgery on a patient with a stab wound to the heart. The procedure was completed without today’s modern medicine and his patient was discharged from the hospital 51 days after surgery. He both challenged and insisted that Provident physicians stay on the forefront of emerging healthcare procedures and discoveries. This later lead him to perform another breakthrough procedure on a patient’s spleen in 1902.
Helen Dickens (1909-2001)
Daughter of a former slave and domestic servant, Helen Dickens was a champion for women’s health, and the first African American woman to be accepted into the American College of Surgeons in 1950.
“I got it into my head if I were going to be a nurse, I might as well be a doctor. I didn’t see why I couldn’t do it. – Helen Octavia Dickens
Growing up, her parents encouraged her to seek a higher education which helped fuel her motivation to apply to only the best schools and hospitals despite the institutions being predominantly white. She also looked to African American women who paved the way before her for mentorship. Dr. Elizabeth Hill, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Illinois, assisted Dickens in her application for med school and coached Dickens along the way.
Dickens later completed her internship at Provident (thanks to Dr. Daniel Hale Williams) and went down the path to become a board-certified Obstetrician and Gynecologist. Her work in gynecology and obstetrics helped normalize the practice and importance of an annual pap smear. Along with its effectiveness in early detection for cervical cancer among women. Much of what we know today about women’s health and preventative care was in some way influenced by Dickens.
Leonidas H. Berry (1902-1995)
Born of a self-liberated African who fought for the Union in the Civil War, Dr. Leonidas Berry received his medical degree in Pathology from the University of Illinois Medical School in 1933. He became a prominent Chicago gastroenterologist where he also studied at the Provident Hospital, as well as the Michael Reese Hospital where he was the first black physician to join the hospital staff.
Dr. Berry is known for developing the Eder-Berry biopsy gastroscope, writing numerous gastroenterology articles and serving as a chairman of Mayor Richard Daley’s health committee. He held various titles throughout his career including president of the National Medical Association in 1965. While he has a long list of accolades, some of his most notable and memorable achievements include aiding the establishment of four narcotic treatment facilities in Chicago, as well the organizing the Flying Black Medics in 1970—a group of doctors and other healthcare professionals who traveled to Cairo to provide medical care and treatment to underserved African Americans. His contributions to the healthcare system helped pave the way to new gastro procedures.
Influential African Americans in Healthcare of Today
Joycelyn Elders, M.D. (b. 1933)
Joycelyn Elders is an American physician, and government official. She has an impressive resume and list of achievements to her name, including working for the U.S. Army, completing medical school in 1956 where she was one of three African American students, and the only African American female student.
Not only was she the first person in Arkansas to specialize and become board-certified in pediatric endocrinology, Elders was also the fifteenth Surgeon General of the United States, being the first African American person to hold the position. To this day, she is the first and only African American woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service.
Elders was awarded a career development award in 1967 by the National Institutes of Health and in 1987, she was appointed the head of the Arkansas Department of Health. Born in 1933, She is now 88 years old and has kept a reputation for opening speaking about controversial topics, and even advocating for universal healthcare coverage as she did during her service as the Surgeon General (1993-1994).
David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D. (b. 1941)
Born in Anniston, Alabama, David Satcher’s healthcare career and achievements have benefited countless rising African American professionals by being a continuous advocate for closing the gap in racial disparities in healthcare.
As a physician-scientist, Satcher was the first African American to hold serve as the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (currently held by Dr. Rochelle Walensky) and was the first African American to serve as the Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services from 1988-2003.
Patrice A. Harris, M.D., M.A. (b.1960)
Dr. Patrice Harris is a board-certified psychiatrist with a focus on child and adolescent and forensic psychiatry. She has a private practice, and once served as a public health director.
The American Medical Association (AMA) has been around for nearly 175 years and elected Dr. Patrice Harris as the first ever African American woman to serve as the institution’s President in 2019. She served for one year and made it her priority to address the implicit bias in our current healthcare system. During her term, Harris played an instrumental role the AMA’s) decision to hire a Chief Health Equity Officer in 2019.
Today, Dr. Harris continues her private practice as a psychiatrist, and is a healthcare consultant for several public and private organizations. She coaches institutions on emerging trends in healthcare policy, as well and health service delivery. In addition to her commitments above, she is also the co-founder and acting CEO at an up-and-coming business, eMed, that provides verified testing and access to RX treatment and at-home COVID-19 tests.