Celebrating African American Medical Pioneers

It’s not every day that we honor some of the most influential African Americans in medical history. Legacy Medical Sales is proud to be a part of this special occasion. This event will showcase the achievements and contributions made by these individuals, as well as help educate others about their life stories. We hope you’ll join us for this celebration!

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Born to freed slaves who had moved to Boston from North Carolina. She was educated at Phillips School in Boston, which after 1855, became one of the first integrated schools in the country. Mahoney wanted to become a nurse so she worked for the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years in varying roles from janitor and washer woman to nurse’s aide. The hospital operated one of the first nursing schools in the country. In 1878 at the age of 33, she entered the school’s graduate program and graduated with only four other students in 1879. 

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831 — 1895)

Rebecca was born in Delaware but was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania who took care of sick neighbors. Because of this influence, she worked as a nurse in Massachusetts for eight years before attending medical school in 1860. Crumpler graduated in 1864 as the first black female to earn a medical degree.  While she faced sexism and other forms of harassment, Crumpler ultimately found the experience transformative. “I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration,” she wrote. In 1883, Crumpler wrote ‘Book of Medical Discourses’, one of the first medical publications by an African American.

James McCune Smith, MD (1813 — 1865)

James, an abolitionist, was born in Manhattan in 1813. In 1837,McCune Smith became the first black American to receive a medical degree, graduating at the top in his class at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He was also the first black person to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States and the first black physician to be published in U.S. medical journals. Smith served for nearly 20 years as the physician at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York, in addition to his many other accomplishments.

Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904 — 1950)

Known as the “father of blood banking,” Charles Richard Drew, MD, pioneered blood preservation techniques that led to thousands of lifesaving blood donations. Drew then led the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and created mobile blood donation stations that are now known as bloodmobiles. As the most prominent African American in the field, Drew protested against the practice of racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation, and resigned his position with the American Red Cross, which maintained the policy until 1950

Alexa Irene Canady, MD (b. 1950)

Canady grew up in Lansing, Michigan, where her father was a dentist and her mother an educator. In 1981, she became the first black neurosurgeon in the United States, and just a few years later, she rose to the ranks of chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Decades as a successful pediatric neurosurgeon, Canady has been lauded for her patient-centered approach to care, which she said was a boon to her career. “I was worried that because I was a black woman, any practice opportunities would be limited.” But, she noted, “by being patient-centered, the practice growth was exponential.” Canady officially retired from practicing medicine a second time in 2012. She continues to be an advocate for encouraging young women to pursue careers in medicine and neurosurgery.

Daniel Hale Williams (1856–1931)

Daniel Hale Williams was born in Pennsylvania but was raised in Baltimore, MD after his parents passed away. After several unsatisfying career options, he decided to apprentice and study at the Chicago Medical College in Illinois. Dr. Williams opened the nation’s first Black-owned interracial hospital. Provident Hospital offered training to African American interns and established America’s first school for Black nurses. On July 10, 1893, Williams successfully repaired the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart) of a man who had been stabbed in a knife fight. The operation is considered to be the first documented successful open-heart surgery on a human, and Williams is regarded as the first African American cardiologist.

Ben Carson (b. 1951)

Ben Carson was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1951. He had a tumultuous early childhood but became inspired by psychiatric doctors portrayed on TV and received his first subscription to Psychology Today for his 13th birthday. Carson was accepted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine neurosurgery program, where he served one year as a surgical intern and five years as a neurosurgery resident, completing the final year as chief resident in 1983. Before he ran for president, in 2016, and served as the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump (2017–2021), Ben Carson was a world-famous, pioneering brain surgeon, specializing in traumatic brain injuries, brain and spinal cord tumors. In 1987, at 35, he received global acclaim when he separated the Binder conjoined twins in Germany. It was the first successful operation of its kind.

Robert Tanner Freeman

Robert Tanner Freeman was born in Washington, D.C. A child of slaves, he eventually entered Harvard Dental School (after two application rejections) and graduated only four years after the end of the Civil War on May 18, 1869 alongside  George Franklin Grant. Both he and Grant became the first African American dentists in the United States. Unfortunately, he died only four years later after contracting a water-borne disease.

Alice Augusta Ball

Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle, Washington. She studied chemistry at the University of Washington, earning two bachelor’s degrees by 1914. In 1915 she became the first woman and first Black American to graduate with a master’s degree from the College of Hawaii.[1] She was also the first African American “research chemist and instructor” in the College of Hawaii’s chemistry department. At the age of 23, she was the first chemist to develop an injectable oil extract that treated leprosy until the 1940s. ​​Unfortunately, due to her untimely death, Ball was unable to publish her revolutionary findings. After numerous decades professors at the University of Hawaii were able to bring her efforts and achievements to light, giving her the credit she earned.

Leonidas Berry

Leonidas Berry was born in North Carolina. After graduating from Wilberforce University in 1924, Berry moved to Chicago where he received a second B.S. degree from the University of Chicago, followed by a M.D. degree from the Rush Medical College of the University. In 1933, he also received a M.S. degree in Pathology from the University of Illinois Medical School. Berry was known as a pioneer in gastroscopy and endoscopy. He invented the first direct-vision instrument, better known as the gastroscopy scope, to remove diseased stomach tissue.

Percy Julian

Percy Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama and went on to become a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana and later wanted to obtain a  doctorate in chemistry, but learned it would be difficult for an African American to do so. After decades of discrimination in his field, Percy was able to create the foundation for steroid drugs to create cortisone, corticosteroids and birth control pills.