Black History Month: Medical Pioneers

Feb 1, 2022

Black History Month is a time to recognize, remember, and celebrate the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history. This year, for Black History Month, TREND Health Partners acknowledges the contributions of a handful of black medical pioneers who paved the way for all medical professionals today. We have selected four accomplished doctors and nurses who fought for civil liberties and public health.

a photo of dr. Robert Fulton Boyd

Photo from the Tennessee State University Library

Robert Fulton Boyd, M.D, D.D.S. (1858-1912) –

Boyd was the first African-American dentist and doctor to open a practice in Tennessee in 1887, where he serviced economically disadvantaged citizens of Nashville and the surrounding areas. He began to speak out about the disproportionate mortality rate of black individuals in the area and educated the public on proper healthcare. He later became a professor at Meharry Medical College, where he had previously received his D.D.S. Here, he was inspired to open Mercy Hospital due to Nashville barring black Meharry medical students from practicing at a neighboring hospital. That same year Boyd and several other black physicians started the Society of Colored Physicians and Surgeons (now the National Medical Association), a national fraternity of which Boyd also became the first president.


photo of dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Photo from The Association for Women in Science

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D. (1831-1895) – There isn’t much known about Crumpler’s early life except that she spent most of her childhood caring for elderly and sick neighbors, which likely influenced her career path. According to her book, Book of Medical Discourses, in 1860, she attended New England Female Medical College. She received her degree “doctress of medicine,” making her the first black female in the United States to earn a medical degree and the only black woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College before they closed their doors in 1873. After the Civil War, Crumpler joined other black physicians and community groups to care for newly freed enslaved people who had no further access to healthcare. Only one or two photos of Crumpler can be found, and the little we know about her life comes from her book, which is also one of the first medical publications written by an African American.

Adah Belle Thoms, R.N. (1870-1943) –

In 1900, Thoms graduated from Women’s Infirmary and School of Therapeutic Massage as the only black woman in her class. She continued her nursing education at Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing. She also served as acting director for 23 years though racially discriminatory policies prevented her from being given the official title. She felt strongly about advancing her profession, so she and two other women started the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, where she served as its president for seven years. Thoms was a key civil rights figure in her era. During World War I, she lobbied the American Red Cross to allow black nurses to serve in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. In 1918 the Surgeon General agreed to a limited enrollment due to Thoms’ efforts. In this, she was received at the White House by President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding for a convention celebrating the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. She was posthumously inducted into the American Nursing Association Hall of Fame in 1976, awarded the Mary Mahoney Medal from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1936, and is celebrated every year during Black History Month.

photo of dr. daniel hale williams

Photo from Northwestern University Library 

Daniel Hale Williams, M.D. (1856–1931) – Williams – known affectionately as Dr. Dan by his patients – worked as an apprentice under a highly decorated surgeon for many years and finally trained at Chicago Medical College. He went on to open a practice in Chicago where he adopted new sterilization procedures for medical equipment. In 1891, Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first U.S. hospital with a racially integrated staff. A few years later, Williams performed one of the first successful open-heart surgeries on a man suffering a stab wound in the chest. In 1894, Williams moved to Washington, D.C., to revitalize Freedmen’s Hospital, a hospital founded to treat previously enslaved people. The hospital had fallen into disrepair, and their mortality rate was skyrocketing. Williams created an ambulance service for this hospital, revamped their surgical procedures, and provided support and opportunities for black medical professionals. He supported black medical professionals by co-founding the Society of Colored Physicians and Surgeons (now the National Medical Association) with Dr. Robert Fulton Boyd. Today, he is honored for being a pioneering black physician and black advocate across the globe.