History of black women in medicine

Introduction: History of black women in medicine. We often discuss Black women as a powerful force in our culture, leading communities, political movements, social justice, etc.

Black women have had a strong and lasting impact in the field of science—helping to shape medicine throughout history. During the horrors of slavery, their forced labor was used to raise and care for the children of their white enslavers.

From slavery to the present day, medicine and science have been forever changed by black women, who led progress and more significant health equity—even in the face of racist efforts to exclude them. 

The goals are being determined. History Month has been authorized in the United States since 1970, but black women were an integral part of medicine in America long before that. Dr. Rebecca Crumpler was the first black woman in America to earn a medical degree in 1864—before the Civil War ended.

Throughout history, black women in medicine have faced dual discrimination based on both race and gender. They have worked tirelessly to achieve great work in medicine, research, advocacy, and public health.

History of black women in medicine

History of black women in medicine

Black women are more likely to develop specific health problems than white women. Until the 1990s, most of the studies of women’s health included only small numbers of Black women or none at all. Enhancing the health of Black women requires more learning about the causes of these health issues and more about how women stay healthy. 

19th and 20th century

Historically, black women have long been marginalized in America. The Three-Fifths Compromise of the U.S. Constitution declared black women only a “part” of humanity, to be counted for congressional representation and direct taxation but nothing more.

Even prominent social justice movements have excluded black women. Racism and elitism were embedded within the American women’s suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which favored white women overall women’s suffrage.

The early 20th century saw a gradual increase in Black women entering the medical profession, though they faced substantial obstacles. Despite the establishment of Black medical schools such as Meharry Medical College and Howard University College of Medicine, opportunities for Black women remained limited due to segregation and discriminatory practices within the medical community.

In 1913, the historically black sorority Delta Sigma Theta marched in a women’s suffrage procession on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Still, it was separated from the back and refused to participate fully in the parade.

More recently, some feminist initiatives have failed to address racial sexism against black women. Black women have long been at the vanguard of the struggle for justice and equivalency, yet their contributions have been incredibly overlooked in dominant social justice narratives.

Similarly, a unique combination of demanding expectations and hyper-scrutiny may limit Black women in medicine. The medical profession does not provide particular protections.

Black female doctors are simultaneously considered supernatural, but never quite. We suggest that this double bind leads to a sense of anxiety because Black women’s identities conflict with their success.

Issues facing black women in the medical field

The problem starts with a medical field that white men have long dominated. Black Americans make up nearly 13% of the U.S. population, but only 5·4% of the physician workforce, and only 2·8% of these are black women.

Black women are also underrepresented in academic leadership roles: only 0·8% of full professors in U.S. medical schools in 2020 were black women.

In 2021, KMarie King became the first black female chair of surgery at an academic medical center in the USA (Albany Medical Center), and soon after, Andrea Hayes became the chair of surgery at Howard University, one of America’s historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

While the history of these moments should be celebrated, such a long-overdue appointment is a reminder that black women are often viewed as less qualified, less capable, or less deserving in academic medicine—even that HBCUs within their own spaces.

The lack of black women in academic leadership and medicine not only limits the role models that students can be inspired by but also contributes to inadequate care for black patients, particularly in health care, Given the importance of racial and gender harmony. 

Challenges Black Women Face in Medicine Career

Black women face many challenges in pursuing careers in medicine. Structural barriers, including segregated housing, economic instability, and underfunded school systems, are products of the violent history of black communities in the USA.

As one of the most marginalized racial and ethnic minority groups in America, black women face the most significant hardships and fewest opportunities. Histories of racism and discrimination have shaped American medical education itself.

For example, the 1910 Flexner Report, sponsored by the American Medical Association, was instrumental in closing historically black medical schools and women’s medical colleges to professionalize medicine.

The legacy of such traditions persists today in the lack of a comprehensive pipeline for black women physicians to medical and academic leadership.

As such, black women who fight through this historically exclusionary medical education system to become doctors can arguably be portrayed as a certain kind of superwoman. Unfortunately, these victories are often accompanied by constant pressure to succeed—or, instead, to fail.

Any failure may be seized upon by critics who see success among people from ethnic minority groups as the exception, not the rule. Indeed, black female physicians can be regarded as critics of being admitted into the profession not based on their merit but rather to meet a certain inclusion quota, thereby making them meaningful in the academic environment are unable to contribute.

Black female physicians typically work twice as hard to reach half as many. They are not given the agency to bounce back because there is no safety net under them if they make a mistake and fall.

Black women’s unique position means they are often asked to do everything from paving the way for others behind them to serving on diversity committees or the latest health equity initiative.

Black women suffer from a version of the Goldilocks dilemma: They are either inadequate or arrogant and excessive—never quite right.

Indeed, if they speak out about inequality, advocate for reform, or seek to advance institutional diversity, these therapists may be portrayed as just another angry black woman. And it can be dismissed as irrational and melodramatic.

The Position of Black Women in the History of Medicine 

One of the earliest recorded Black women in medicine was Mary Eliza Mahoney, born in 1845. Mahoney broke racial and gender barriers by becoming the first African American professionally trained nurse in the United States.

Graduating from the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1879, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908, advocating for the inclusion and advancement of Black nurses.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, born in 1831, was another trailblazer. She became the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, graduating from the New England Female Medical College in 1864.

Despite the pervasive racism and sexism of her time, Crumpler provided medical care to formerly enslaved people in the post-Civil War South, focusing on women’s and children’s health.

Dr. Matilda Arabella Evans, born in 1872, became the first African American woman certified to practice medicine in South Carolina. She founded the Taylor Lane Hospital, which provided medical care to African Americans during a time when they were often denied treatment at other facilities.

Dr. May Chinn, born in 1896, was another significant figure. As the first Black woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, she faced significant racial and gender biases but persevered. Chinn worked extensively in cancer research and contributed substantially to early cancer detection methods.

Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee, born in 1898, exemplified the merging of medical expertise and civil rights activism. A Tufts University Medical School graduate, she became a prominent public health advocate, leading initiatives like the Mississippi Health Project, which provided medical care to thousands of Black sharecroppers.

Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens, born in 1909, was another pioneer. She became the first African American woman accepted to the American College of Surgeons. Dickens devoted her career to obstetrics and gynecology, focusing on teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in underserved communities.

Born in 1950, Dr. Alexa Canady became the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States. Her contributions to pediatric neurosurgery and her role as Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan have been widely recognized.

Dr. Joycelyn Elders, born in 1933, was appointed the first African American Surgeon General of the United States in 1993. Despite significant opposition and controversy, Elders was an outspoken advocate for public health issues, including sex education and drug policy reform.

Conclusion: History of black women in medicine

The history of Black women in medicine is a testament to their extraordinary resilience and contributions to healthcare. From the early days of Mary Eliza Mahoney and Rebecca Lee Crumpler to contemporary leaders like Dr. Alexa Canady and Dr. Joycelyn Elders, Black women have made significant strides against formidable odds.

Their legacy is perseverance, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to improving healthcare for all, particularly underserved and marginalized communities. As the medical field continues to evolve, the contributions and leadership of Black women will remain vital in shaping a more inclusive and equitable future in healthcare.

Efforts to address these issues include initiatives to increase diversity in medical schools and create supportive networks for Black women in medicine. Organizations like the National Medical Association (NMA) and the Association of Black Women Physicians (ABWP) play crucial roles in advocating for the rights and recognition of Black female doctors.

Also watch: History of medicine in 20th century; History of medicine in 19th century; History and Evolution of IoT