dr marilyn gaston smiles down at the camera while standing with her arms crossed, she wears a red suit jacket, gold hoop earrings, a gold necklace, and a gold bracelet, her short hair is styled with loose curls, and her makeup includes soft red lipstick, in the background on the right is dr gayle porter who also has short hair and is smiling while looking away from the camera
Dr. Marilyn Gaston, left, is widely celebrated for her pioneering work studying sickle cell disease. She’s seen here in 2006 with Dr. Gayle Porter, her co-author of Prime Time: The African American Woman’s Complete Guide to Midlife Health and Wellness.
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For more than 200 years, Black physicians and nurses have made contributions of incalculable importance to medicine and healthcare in the United States, from establishing the nation’s first blood banks to historic advancements in sickle cell disease treatment and cataract surgery. In honor of Black History Month, get to know eight Black Americans who have made pioneering achievements to the medical profession.

Dr. James McCune Smith


engraving head and shoulders portrait of dr james mccune smith abolitionist and emancipator circa 1860 photo by fotosearchgetty images
James McCune Smith was the first African American to receive a medical degree and the first to run a pharmacy in the United States.

James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree, which he received from the University of Glasgow in 1837. The first Black man to run a pharmacy in the United States, Smith used medical data to challenge notions of African American racial inferiority. He was also an abolitionist leader, working with Frederick Douglass to start the National Council of Colored People, and helping refugee slaves through the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler


During a time when Black Americas were often prevented from pursuing careers in medicine, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman in the United States to become a doctor of medicine. She was also one of the first Black authors of a medical publication; her book of medical advice for women and children released in 1883.

Mary Mahoney


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In 1879, Mary Mahoney became the first Black woman to complete nurse’s training.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Mahoney was admitted to the nursing school of the New England Hospital for Women and Children and became the first Black woman to complete nurse’s training in 1879. One of the first Black members of what is now the American Nurses Association, Mahoney was also among the first women to vote in Boston after the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women’s suffrage on August 26, 1920.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams


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Daniel Hale Williams opened Provident Hospital, the nation’s first hospital with an interracial staff.
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Dr. Daniel Hale Williams had a pioneering career in medicine. At a time when African American patients were banned from hospitals and Black doctors were refused staff positions, Williams opened Chicago’s Provident Hospital—the nation’s first hospital with an interracial staff—in 1891. He was also one of the first physicians in the country to perform open-heart surgery, which he did without the benefit of a blood transfusion or modern surgical procedures.

Dr. Charles Drew


charles drew looks directly forward, wearing a lab coat and standing next to laboratory equipment
Charles Drew’s pioneering research in the field of blood transfusions assisted the development improved techniques for blood storage.
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Known as the “father of blood banks,” Charles Drew pioneered methods of processing and storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States. He managed two of the largest blood banks during World War II and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds during the war. He also fought against racial segregation in blood banks, resigning his post with the American Red Cross over the matter.

Dr. Patricia Bath


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Patricia Bath was the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent, for her Laserphaco Probe invention in 1986.

Dr. Patricia Bath was the first female African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. In 1986, she invented the Laserphaco Probe, which harnessed laser technology to create a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts. She received a patent for the device in 1988, becoming the Black female doctor in the country to receive a medical patent.

Dr. Marilyn Gaston


a woman wearing a red dress and sunglasses speaks at a podium and looks off stage
Dr. Marilyn Gaston speaking at the 17th Annual Woman’s Day Red Dress Awards on February 4, 2020
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The first Black woman to serve as director of the Bureau of Public Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, Dr. Marilyn Gaston is widely celebrated for her pioneering work studying sickle cell disease. Her 1986 study led to the creation of a nationwide screening program to test newborn babies for the disease.

Dr. Alexa Canady


While attending the University of Michigan’s medical school, Alexa Canady became interested in neurosurgery, but some advisers tried to discourage her from pursuing the career path, and she faced difficulties obtaining an internship. Nevertheless, Canady completed her residency in 1981, making her the first Black woman to become a neurosurgeon in the United States.

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Colin McEvoy
Senior News Editor, Biography.com

Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.