In the spirit of Black History Month, we wanted to recognize just a handful of African American physicians whose work has gone largely unnoticed but whose impact is profound. Below, we will remember some of these unsung heroes, their impact, the discrimination and structural racism they faced, and the work they left behind.
Virginia Alexander was a pioneering Black doctor and public health expert. In a clinic she built in her Philadelphia home, she treated Black patients who experienced racism from white staff in local hospitals. She earned a public health degree and led research that showed how segregation and racism harmed Black Americans’ health. She was also an early advocate for a national health insurance system.
Alexander Thomas Augusta was the first Black surgeon commissioned in the Union Army during the Civil War and the first Black professor of medicine in the United States. He was instrumental in founding the institutions that later became the hospital and medical college of Howard University and the National Medical Association. He was active in struggles to end discrimination on streetcars in Washington, D.C.
Bernard Challenor, a professor and acting dean at the Columbia Mailman School from 1978-80, was the first African American appointed to be an Epidemiological Intelligence Service Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1965. He also worked at the World Health Organization and the United States Public Health Service. Awarded each year, the Challenor Spirit Prize recognizes a member of the graduating class who best exemplifies the character of the award’s namesake.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. After the Civil War, she moved from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, where she treated formerly enslaved people without access to medical care. In 1883, she published her Book of Medical Discourses, which provides guidance on maternal and child health. “There is no doubt that thousands of little ones annually die at our very doors, from diseases which could have been prevented,” she wrote.
Vivian Thomas was a laboratory supervisor who developed a surgical procedure used to treat blue baby syndrome. The grandson of enslaved people, Thomas was forced to abandon his dream to attend college and become a doctor. While he was doing the work of a postdoctoral lab researcher, he was classified and paid as a janitor. In the movie Something the Lord Made, Thomas is portrayed wonderfully by Mos Def.