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African American physician smiling at camera during a team meeting.

Shining a Light on Medical Pioneers During Black History Month

February 09, 2024 Posted in: Blogs


February is Black History Month, providing us with an opportunity to recognize the extraordinary achievements of African Americans. This month, we’re highlighting the role of African Americans in medicine.

When you were younger, you may have learned about great African Americans, such as agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, track and field athlete Jesse Owens or civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You probably also learned about others who were influential in our country’s history, such as Rosa Parks, who famously took a seat (and a stand) on a Montgomery bus, and Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice.

Those Americans carved out spots in our history books due to innovations in their respective fields or an important role they played, but there are many other African Americans to highlight during Black History Month. Today, we’re focusing on five greats in the medical profession.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney, who lived from 1845 to 1926, was the first African American licensed nurse. She was born in Boston to formerly enslaved people, and she was educated at Phillips School, which was one of the first integrated schools in the country.

As a teen, she decided she wanted to be a nurse, so she began working at New England Hospital for Women and Children. In a 15-year span, she worked in a variety of roles at the hospital, including nurse’s aide. In 1878, she was admitted to the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. After completing the 16-month course, she became the first African American to receive a nursing license and served as a private nurse for many years.

James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith, who lived from 1813 to 1865, was America’s first African American physician. Born as a slave in New York City, he received his childhood education at African Free School #2 in Lower Manhattan, which was established to help free and enslaved African Americans prepare for a future after emancipation. 

He eventually pursued and received a medical degree at the University of Glasgow in Scotland because no American university would admit him. Back in New York, he established a medical practice on West Broadway, along with the first African American-owned pharmacy, treating both African American and white patients.

Daniel Hale Williams

Daniel Hale Williams, who lived from 1856 to 1931, is considered a pioneer in cardiovascular surgery. In 1893, he performed the nation’s first successful open-heart surgery on a man named James Cornish. Cornish was admitted to a Chicago hospital with a chest wound from a barroom brawl.

Medical professionals at the time believed that operating on the heart was too dangerous, but Dr. Williams cut a small hole in the chest and then repaired Cornish’s severed artery. The patient lived for 20 years after the procedure. He is also known for founding the nation’s first African American-owned and -operated hospital in the United States.

Solomon Carter Fuller

Solomon Carter Fuller, who lived from 1872 to 1953, is recognized as the nation’s first African American psychiatrist. Born in Liberia and the grandchild of enslaved Americans who purchased their freedom, he came to the United States as a teen to pursue a medical degree.

He received his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1897. Over time, he worked as a psychiatrist, researcher, neuropsychiatrist and medical educator, eventually pioneering research related to Alzheimer’s disease.  

Myra Adele Logan

Myra Adele Logan, who lived from 1908 to 1977, was another innovator in the field of cardiovascular surgery, becoming the first woman to perform open-heart surgery. Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, she obtained a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University before pursuing medicine. 

She graduated with her medical degree from New York Medical College in 1933 as the first recipient of the Walter Gray Crump Scholarship for minority students attending medical school. In 1943, she became the first woman to perform open-heart surgery. After that pioneering achievement, she went on to specialize in pediatric heart surgery and helped research and develop antibiotics.

Looking to learn about other African Americans with influential roles in medicine? The National Academy of Medicine has you covered!

Committed to Diversity

In February and always, St. Luke’s Health is committed to diversity, equality and inclusion. We strive to address racial injustice and health disparities through how we care for our patients, how we hire and mentor health professionals, and how we serve the communities where we live and work. We are mindful of the greater challenges African American patients face in many areas of health, such as heart disease risk, and we work together to overcome those challenges. It’s all part of our goal of cultivating a culture of humankindness in health care.

Learn more about our patient-centered care initiatives.

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