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The Career Blazers

Seven black female medical pioneers

 Since the country’s inception, black women have been working tirelessly to advance the cause of medicine and eradicate sickness and disease. From the first black nurse to the first black female neurosurgeon, African-American women have solidified their place in medical history and left a legacy of firm determination, selfless compassion, and academic excellence.


Alexa Canady

Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press

Dr. Alexa Canady

In 1976, at age 26, Alexa Canady became the first black female neurosurgeon in the United States when she was accepted as a resident at the University of Minnesota. In 1986, after four years at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, Canady became chief of the hospital’s neurosurgery department. In 1993, she received the American Women’s Medical Association President’s Award. Canady’s research in neurosurgical techniques resulted in the invention of a programmable antisiphon shunt, which is used to treat excess fluid in the brain. She shares a U.S. patent for the device with two other neurosurgeons.


Dr. Jane Cooke Wright

Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright

Jane Cooke Wright’s father set the bar pretty high by being one of the first blacks to graduate from Harvard Medical School, the first black doctor on staff at a New York City municipal hospital, and New York’s first black police surgeon.  However, Jane Cook Wright successfully emulated his example.  In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. In 1967, at the age of 48, Wright became professor of surgery, head of the cancer chemotherapy department, and associate dean at New York Medical College.  These accomplishments made her the highest-ranking black woman at a nationally-recognized medical institution.  In 1971, Wright also became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society.


Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders

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Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders

In 1961, 28-year-old M. Jocelyn Elders became the chief resident at the University of Arkansas, leading a charge of white, male residents and interns. She was the first person in the state of Arkansas to be board certified in pediatric endocrinology. In 1987, Governor Bill Clinton appointed Elders head of the Arkansas Department of Health, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her the sixteenth Surgeon General of the United States. She was the first black and the second female to hold this position.


Dr. Regina Benjamin

Photo courtesy of Time Magazine

Dr. Regina Benjamin

After Regina Benjamin received her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she returned to her Gulf Coast hometown, Bayou la Batre, and opened a small rural health clinic; for 13 years, she was the town’s only doctor. In 1995, at the age of 39, Benjamin became the first black woman, and the first person under the age of 40, to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees, and in 2002, she became the first black female president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. She was chosen “Person of the Week” by ABC World News Tonight, and “Woman of the Year” by both CBS This Morning and People Magazine. Benjamin won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” award in 2008, and was appointed the eighteenth Surgeon General by President Barack Obama in 2009.


Mary Eliza Mahoney

Photo courtesy of Aetna

Mary Eliza Mahoney

In 1878, at the age of 33, Mary Eliza Mahoney was accepted into the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s Nursing School, which was the first professional nursing program in the United States. Out of 42 students, she was one of only four students to graduate the following year, making her the first black female nurse in the country. Mahoney championed the cause of racial and gender equality, and in 1920, at the age of 76, she was one of the first women in Boston to register to vote when the Nineteenth Amendment passed.


Helen Octavia Dickens

Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens

In 1934, when 25-year old Helen Octavia Dickens graduated with an M.D. degree from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, she was the only black female in her class. In 1948, Dickens became the director of the Mercy Douglass Hospital Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Philadelphia.  In 1950, she became the first black female fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Dickens also taught at the University of Pennsylvania as an instructor, and then a professor, and was appointed professor emeritus in 1985.


Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Photo courtesy of Young Women Misbehaving

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

In 1860, at the age of 29, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was accepted into the New England Female Medical College. She graduated four years later, becoming the first black female in the United States to obtain an M.D. degree. When the medical college closed in 1873, Crumpler also became the only black female to have graduated from the institution. In 1883, she published The Book of Medical Discourse, which is one of the first medical books to be published by a black person of any gender.

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