Black History Month in the U.S. is well under way with the legacy of health and wellness change-makers and risk-takers being celebrated. Their far-reaching contributions and transformational innovations reverberate throughout history and into modern day.
This annual celebration represents a chance for all of us to learn about the fundamental role African Americans have played in how this country has progressed. Black history is American history, something that sadly, has yet to be fully realized. The sudden, fervent protests and laws banning Critical Race Theory from being taught in schools; for example seems to have ignited a call to ban Black History from being covered. There is little to no evidence that Critical Race Theory is part of any academic curriculums in K-12 public schools; it seems to be more about silencing all discussions on race and allowing historical fact to be whitewashed.
You may be surprised to learn about the trailblazers in healthcare featured in this article; you may already know about them, either way it’s time to share their impactful achievements and celebrate their lives.
James McCune Smith, MD (1813-1865)
Graduating with honours in 1837, James McCune Smith became the first African American to receive a medical degree. His courage and determination to follow his calling were not dampened when medical schools in the U.S. refused to accept him because of their racist admission policies; as an alternative, he enrolled at the University of Glasgow (Scotland, UK) where he obtained a BA, MA and medical doctorate.
Upon his return to the United States; McCune Smith became a leading abolitionist, activist and journalist. His tireless work included exposing discriminatory practices targeting Black Americans; like working with Edward Jarvis (a Harvard educated statistician) to utilize medical data to expose and disprove White supremacist/pro-slavery sham concepts of African American racial inferiority.
As the son of Lavinia Smith, who was a North Carolina runaway slave who ended up in New York City, you can understand where he got his tenacity and dedication from; including his resolution to improve access to healthcare for all African Americans and to end slavery.
Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904-1950)
Charles Richard Drew was an African American physician, researcher, and surgeon who revolutionized preservation practices for storing blood plasma used in transfusions.
During the research for his Columbia University doctoral thesis beginning in 1938, he discovered that plasma can be dried; making it easier to store, transport and reconstitute into whole blood when required. With the arrival of World War II, this innovation would prove transformative as the numbers of casualties needing plasma rose dramatically in this time of conflict. As a result of this demand, Drew created two ‘blood banks’ that saved the lives of thousands of injured people; one collected plasma being sent to Britain; the other for U.S. military personnel (he was director of the first ever American Red Cross Blood Bank in 1941).
Despite his significant contributions and expertise; Drew resigned in 1942 from this directorship to protest a ruling that specified African American blood had to be stored away from that of White donors. He had previously fought hard to have Black plasma donations collected as part of the supply network, and as they could only be used on Black patients anyway; he rightfully felt this deeper step into racial segregation was unnecessary and had gone too far.
Charles Drew went on to become chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital and the first African American examiner for the American Board of Surgery.
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
The vast importance of Henrietta Lacks within the medical research field cannot be overstated. She’s been integral since the 1950s to so many crucial breakthroughs within biomedical research that it’s profoundly sad she remained overlooked for so long.
After a diagnosis of cervical cancer in January 1951, Lacks sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was here, without her knowledge or consent, that two cervical samples of her cancerous cells were taken; with one being given to cell biologist Dr. George Otto Gey. During his experimentation and research, Dr. Gey noticed that her cells were ‘immortal’; they could survive, grow and reproduce endlessly (in laboratory conditions). By isolating and multiplying one of the cells, he created the HeLa human cell line (Henrietta Lacks); an infinitely durable, replicable cell strain that has underpinned most modern-day global biomedical advancements. From the polio vaccine to treatments for various cancers; sickle cell anemia; HIV/AIDS; Ebola and even the Covid-19 vaccines; HeLa cells have been at the forefront of medical progress.
Sadly passing away in October 1951, Henrietta Lacks never learned about the significance of her cells or the unethical nature of how her biopsies were taken. Her family only found out in 1973 when researchers contacted them requesting blood samples to study their genes. Consent laws have since improved; however, this doesn’t alter the fact that medical and pharmaceutical companies have benefitted — for decades — from the commercialisation of a Black woman’s body. Her family should be appropriately compensated every time a new HeLa cell line discovery is made.
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together. | Desmond Tutu
Building on our knowledge and understanding of Black History should be something we continually educate ourselves about and celebrate. Learning from the past isn’t an exercise in pointing fingers but a chance to see how far we’ve come while identifying what we have yet to achieve.
How are you celebrating Black History Month? Who are you going to share these incredible trailblazers with?
Watch ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ (2017) on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO, Hulu, Tubi, Vudu