Celebrating Black Women Pioneers in Medicine and their Lasting Impact on Healthcare

By: Amy Gill (Mommy Monitor’s Youth Subcommittee)

March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD), which aims to celebrate women’s achievements in order to forge a gender equal world by calling out inequality. This year, the campaign theme of #IWD2021 is to #ChooseToChallenge, which is centred on challenging gender bias and inequality with the overarching goal of creating an inclusive world. In the past, Black women have been excluded from the healthcare field. Black women not only face inequalities due to gender-based biases, but they also have to endure race-based prejudice and discrimination. This is why it is important to identify, examine, and address intersectionality when trying to create a world that is equal and inclusive. Despite these challenges, many Black women have persevered and have made significantly positive impacts on healthcare. Below, we have highlighted a few of the inspirational women who battled incredible odds to provide care to under-served communities.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831–1895)

Image Source: PBS NewsHour

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black female physician in the United States. Prior to attending medical school, she worked as a nurse. She graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864 and pursued a career in General Medicine. When she moved to Richmond, Virginia in 1865, in her own words, she described that Richmond would be the “proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” During her time in Richmond, Dr. Crumpler endured sexism and racism from her colleagues, but she explained that in doing so, she was able to tend to “a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored.” She went on to write “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts” which she dedicated to “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” This was the first medical text that was authored by a Black author. The book focused on the treatment and prevention of infantile bowel complaints and also contained information on the cause, prevention, and cure of various conditions which impacted women.

By making a bold decision to apply to medical school, during a time when this field was primarily occupied by White men, Dr. Crumpler empowered other Black women to step into healthcare fields where their presence was lacking. Many Black women would later follow in her footsteps.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845–1926)

Image Source: National Women’s History Museum

Mary Eliza Mahoney knew she wanted to be a nurse from a young age, so she started her career at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She took on various roles that included janitor, cook, and nurse’s aide. She carried out these jobs for 15 years before applying to nursing school at the age of 33. There were 42 students who began the rigorous nursing program with Mary, and she was one of only four students who graduated from the program. Upon graduating, she became the first Black licensed nurse in the United States. Noticing the inequalities that existed within the nursing education, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Since her passing, she has received many awards and memorials. In 1976, she was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Margaret Charles Smith (1906–2004)

Image Source: Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame

Margaret Charles Smith’s mother passed away three weeks after Margaret was born. Margaret delivered her first baby at the age of five when she was asked to attend to her cousin’s wife while he went to fetch the midwife. By the time her cousin and the midwife returned, Margaret had already delivered the baby. Reports indicate that, during her career as a midwife, Margaret delivered over 3,500 babies and no mother passed away during those deliveries. Margaret was not only one of the first official midwives in Greene County, but she was also one of the last “Granny” midwives before Alabama banned midwives in 1976. The President of the Midwives’ Alliance of North America, Ina May Gaskin, described Margaret as a “national treasure”. Ina explained, “[Margaret] can teach us about courage, motherwit, perseverance, our history, and how to face what’s coming — if we listen.”

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens (1909–2001)

Image Source: Changing the Face of Medicine

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens, the daughter of a former slave and domestic servant, was encouraged to obtain a good education. Motivated by other Black women who had made great strides in healthcare before her, she pursued medicine. In 1934, when she graduated from the medical program at the University of Illinois, she was the only Black woman in her class. In 1934, she became the first Black woman to be board certified in obstetrics and gynecology, and in 1950, she was named the first Black female fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

Dr. Dickens’ goal was to serve minority populations and empower young and adult women. To this end, she conducted research pertaining to teen pregnancy and sexual health, and worked to educate youth and disseminate intervention strategies for reducing youth pregnancy and sexual disease transmission. She also founded the “Teen Clinic” (now the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women) in Pennsylvania to try to provide “badly needed services to youth in the Black community.” Other accomplishments include her work to popularise the Pap smear in Black communities, which helped lower cervical cancer deaths in Black women, and her achievement of the Associate Dean of Minority Admissions position at the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, where she worked to recruit Black students to medical school.

Dr. Yvonne Thornton (1947-Present)

Image Source: DA Kentner

Dr. Yvonne Thornton’s father wanted all six of his daughters to become physicians. Not only did Dr. Thornton accomplish her father’s dream for her, but she was also one of the first Black women to accomplish huge strides in obstetrics. She was the first Black woman in the United States to be board certified in obstetrics and gynecology with “special competency” in maternal and fetal medicine. During her career, she delivered more than 5,000 babies and she oversaw more than 12,000 high-risk deliveries. She also volunteered in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology with the U.S. Navy. Most noticeably, Dr. Thornton played a huge role in refining and obtaining FDA approval for chorionic villus sampling which is an alternative practice of prenatal diagnostic testing.

Dr. Thornton is also the author of two best-selling memoirs titled, “The Ditchdigger’s Daughters’’ and “Something to Prove’’. With respect to facing adversity, due to her gender and race, when pursuing medicine, she quotes her father: “When someone’s in need of healing, he won’t care about the color of the doctor’s skin.” He also motivated his daughters by explaining, “If the front door isn’t open, go around to the back and climb through the window. If the window is closed, try to get in through the cellar. If that’s locked, go up on the roof and see if you can get in through the chimney. There is always a way to get in if you keep trying.”

Ultimately, for generations, the intersectionality of gender and race has resulted in prejudice and discrimination that drastically limited diversity in medicine, which negatively impacted patients due to the lack of culturally competent and relevant healthcare resources and services available to them. The trailblazing Black women we have highlighted above not only improved the lives of their patients and communities, but they also helped provide the young Black women that came after them the courage and perseverance to pursue a career in healthcare, in spite of the gender- and race-based challenges they faced along the way. In doing so, these Black women decided to #ChooseToChallenge. They should be remembered and celebrated for their contributions to tackling gender bias and racial inequality within healthcare, and we should carry their stories with us as we continue to work towards a more equitable future.