Black Female Pioneers of American Medicine

Active Living Profiles

During Black History Month, as we reflect on the monumental achievements and contributions of Black Americans and consider the strides made by women of color in the past year, it seems fitting to look back at some extraordinary Black women who laid the groundwork for generations to come.

The women featured in this blog were pioneers in the field of medicine, enduring the dual challenges of racism and sexism to excel in academics and their chosen profession. Meet five women whose determination to make the world a better, healthier place for the people in their communities, and for all Americans, forever changed the face of healthcare in our country.

Dr. Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler

First Black woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S.

Born in Delaware in 1831, Rebecca Crumpler was raised by an aunt who provided medical care to neighbors and members of the local community. This early exposure to caring for the sick and recognizing the opportunity to make a difference had a significant impact on the young Crumpler. “I early conceived a liking for and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others,” said Dr. Crumpler when asked about her childhood experience and ambition.

She was a gifted student and went immediately from school to serve in health care. Crumpler worked as a nurse from 1852 to 1860 without any formal training, as the first formal nursing school in the area would not open for another 13 years.

Soon, Crumpler set her sights on becoming a doctor. She applied to medical school and was accepted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston – the first medical school for women anywhere in the world. The college had been training female doctors for 10 years, but male physicians continued to insist that “women were incapable of mastering a medical curriculum,” much of which they deemed inappropriate for a woman’s “sensitive and delicate nature.”

Undaunted by their skepticism and focused on her dream, Dr. Crumpler graduated in 1864 – the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. She promptly moved to Boston to begin her medical practice and continued to look for ways to make an even greater impact in the world, especially for people in need.

In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, Dr. Crumpler began what she called “real missionary work” with the Freedman’s Bureau. This federal agency was created to help the 4,000,000+ recently freed slaves with their transition to freedom. Without the help of the bureau, they would have had no other access to medical care. At the Bureau’s state office in Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Crumpler rose above intense racism and sexism to treat the city’s poorest people, while developing a deep understanding of the health issues and diseases of greatest concern to women and children.

Eventually, she returned to Boston and practiced medicine there as well as in New York. She published “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” which is thought to be possibly the first medical textbook written by a Black author. The book is based on the journals she kept while practicing medicine, and is dedicated to “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”

Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson

First woman of any race to practice medicine in the state of Alabama

Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson’s parents were well-educated and very involved in all aspects of their community in Pittsburgh. The family’s home served as a meeting place for political and cultural groups, and Dillon was immersed in the work of prominent Black intellectuals at an early age. Her parents ensured that she lacked for nothing in terms of education.

Dillon became a wife, mother and widow all before the age of 25. After her husband’s sudden death, she returned to live with her family, and with their encouragement and support she decided to study medicine at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She graduated with honors in 1891.

Upon graduation, Dr. Dillon accepted an offer from Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, to teach and serve the neighboring community as a physician. She was to earn $600 a month, including lodging and meals for her work. However, prior to taking the position, she needed to take and pass the grueling Alabama State Medical Examination, a 10-day affair that addressed a different area of medicine each day. She prepared for the test by studying with Dr. Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette, the first licensed Black doctor in Montgomery, Alabama.

When she passed the Alabama State Medical Exam, the event was considered so extraordinary that it was written up in The New York Times. The Times reported that Dr. Dillon had “passed this unusually severe ten-day written exam to become not only the first colored female physician, but the first woman of any race to officially practice medicine in Alabama.”

Dr. Myra Logan

First woman to perform open-heart surgery, among many notable achievements

Myra Logan’s parents were also instrumental in setting a course of academic and professional success for their daughter. Her mother, Adella, was a college graduate, a rarity for a woman – especially a Black woman – in 1900s Alabama. Adella was also a suffragist and health care advocate. Myra’s father, Warren, was the treasurer of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. “Her parents held education and optimism in the highest regard,” writes one historian about this accomplished Black couple.

Logan followed her parents’ example, graduating as valedictorian of her Atlanta University class in 1927. She later earned a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University and was the first recipient of the $10,000 4-year Walter Gray Crump Scholarship for Young Women, which enabled her to attend New York Medical College. She interned in the emergency room at Harlem Hospital and earned her MD from New York Medical College in 1933.

In 1943, in just the ninth operation of its kind anywhere in the world, Dr. Logan became the first woman to perform open-heart surgery. She made significant contributions in other aspects of medicine too, specifically the development of antibiotics, including Aureomycin which is used to combat respiratory infections like pneumonia. She was instrumental in developing more effective methods for the early detection and treatment of breast cancer, most notably the use of x-ray technology to detect differences in breast tissue density. Her pioneering work enabled health care professionals to identify and treat tumors earlier than previously possible and saved the lives of countless patients throughout the country and the world.

Dr. Helen Dickens

Daughter of a former slave, she championed preventive health care for women and teens

Against formidable odds, Helen Dickens set her mind to becoming a physician and refused to let anything stand in her way. “It was what I wanted to do, and I didn’t see why I couldn’t do it,” said Dickens. “You just had to do what you had to do to get the job done.” Only through sheer determination was she able to make her dream a reality.

When asked how she handled the twofold obstacles of racism and sexism while pursuing her studies, Dr. Dickens described the strategy she used which enabled her to ignore, and thus overcome, her oppressors. In every class she attended, she would sit in the front row: “This way I didn’t have to look at them, or the gestures made that were directed against me or toward me,” she revealed in an interview in 1993. One historian noted that by taking a seat at the front of the classroom, Dickens was “figuratively at the forefront of change.” In 1934, she earned her degree in medicine. She was one of only two women, and the only Black woman, in her medical school graduating class.

She was the first Black woman to become a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist in Philadelphia, the first Black woman to serve in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the first Black female fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

Dr. Dickens focused on obstetrics and gynecology while working in some of the poorest communities in and around Philadelphia, and received her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), where she specialized in OB/GYN.

She founded the region’s first “Teen Clinic” (now the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women at Penn) to “provide badly needed services to youth in the Black community.” She was committed to educating young girls about teen pregnancy and sexual health, and was an early public health influencer, especially related to cervical cancer screening and the promotion of Pap smears. In fact, her efforts related to teen pregnancy and sexual health convinced area schools and health care professionals to develop preventive programs designed to lower the incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

During the 1960s, supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Dickens taught other Black physicians in the Philadelphia area to use Pap smears to detect cervical cancer. “If every woman in Philadelphia had a Pap test once a year, no woman need die of uterine cancer,” Dickens said in a 1968 interview. At the time, approximately 14,000 American women were dying of the disease each year.

Dr. Dickens practiced medicine at Penn into her 80s, and in 1999, Penn Medicine dedicated the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women’s’ Health in honor of the 50 years she spent “healing, helping and guiding women of all ages.”

Dr. Patricia Bath

First Black female doctor to become an ophthalmologist and to receive a medical patent

Patricia Bath was born in Harlem, New York City in 1942 to parents who taught her early on the value of learning and knowledge. Bath’s mother used the salary she earned as a domestic worker to save for her children’s education. Recognizing her daughter’s early interest in science, she bought Patricia a chemistry set to encourage her academic pursuits.

Bath was a gifted student, serving as editor of her high school’s science paper, participating in science fairs and winning many awards. At the age of 16, she was invited to participate in a summer cancer research program sponsored by the National Science Foundation at Yeshiva University. During the program, she developed a mathematical equation for predicting cancer cell growth, and her early mentor, Dr. Robert O. Bernard, incorporated her research into a paper he presented at an international conference. Dr. Bernard gave Bath proper credit for her work, which came to the attention of Mademoiselle magazine. At the time, Mademoiselle positioned itself as a resource for smart, young female professionals. They sponsored a Merit Award for young women making outstanding contributions to their field of work or study, and Bath received Mademoiselle’s Merit Award in 1960 when she was only 18.

It took Bath just over two years to complete her high school education, after which she attended Hunter College as an undergrad, and then Howard University for medical school. She graduated with honors in 1968 and interned near her birthplace at Harlem Hospital. Concurrently, she pursued a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Her research at Columbia revealed that Blacks were twice as likely to suffer from blindness and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma than her other patients. In response, Dr. Bath developed the discipline of Community Ophthalmology, providing eye care to anyone who was unable to afford treatment. This discipline is now practiced throughout the world, and Bath’s research related to glaucoma and blindness changed the course of eye care for Black Americans forever.

When Bath completed her residency in ophthalmology in 1973, she become the first American Black doctor – male or female – to do so. She was also the first female faculty member in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.

Guided by the belief that “eyesight is a basic human right,” Dr. Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB) in 1975. The Institute’s mission from the start was to “protect, preserve, and restore the gift of sight” for all persons, regardless of race, gender, age, or income level. She also helped create the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew and served as its chair – the first woman to hold such a position.

In addition to being a practicing physician, Dr. Bath was also an inventor, and her most well-known invention helped restore the vision of individuals who were suffering blindness due to cataracts. Her LaserPhaco Probe used laser technology to vaporize cataracts, making the procedure more precise and less painful than previously possible. She was awarded a patent for the device in 1988 – the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent – and holds four other U.S. patents, plus international patents in Canada, Japan and several European countries.

Bath was also an early advocate of telemedicine, especially for its ability to serve patients in remote areas who might otherwise not have been able to receive medical services. She remained dedicated to her mission of preventing, treating and curing blindness until her death at age 76 in 2019.

Having read the stories of these groundbreaking women, consider these statistics. Today, 13 percent of the US population is comprised of Black Americans, yet only four percent of practicing US physicians are Black, and only two percent of those Black physicians are women. It makes these five stories even more remarkable, doesn’t it?

The smart, curious, determined women featured here were driven by their desire to learn and excel, but especially by their desire to serve. To learn more about them and others like them, do a quick Google search on “black women in medical history.” You’ll find inspiring stories of dozens more Black female medical pioneers who broke through barriers to change the face of medicine and health care for the good of all.