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Outstanding Black Americans Pave the Way for Generations of Medical Professionals

LVHN emergency medicine resident writes about outstanding Black figures in medicine

LVHN emergency medicine resident Robert Ray Jr., DO
Robert Ray Jr., DO, is an emergency medicine resident with Lehigh Valley Health Network, pursuing a career in toxicology. He honors Black Americans who have made a long-lasting impact in medicine by telling their stories during Black History Month.

Black History Month is observed nationally in February and provides an opportunity to acknowledge the history and celebrate the achievements of Black Americans. At LVHN, we value the contributions our Black colleagues make to our workplace culture and honor their vital role in ensuring high quality, equitable care for our patients and families.

Throughout history, Black Americans have made monumental contributions to medicine and health care. Here are the stories of some outstanding Black figures in medicine:

  • James Derham (also known as James Durham) was the first Black American to practice medicine in the United States. He was born into slavery in 1762 in Philadelphia. In 1788, he was sold to a surgeon in Louisiana. This is where he learned medicine. He won his freedom and provided medical care to free and enslaved Black people in Louisiana. He eventually opened his own practice in New Orleans, La., and is credited with opening the first documented medical practice owned by a Black person.
  • Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD, (born Rebecca Davis in 1831) was the first Black American woman to earn a medical degree. She also is the author of the first book written by a Black doctor in the United States, “A Book of Medical Discourses,” published in 1883. Raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania, historians believe her passion for health care was sparked by watching her aunt provide care to sick neighbors. She was admitted to New England Female Medical College in Boston, Mass., in 1860, where she earned her medical degree. At the end of the Civil War, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Va., to provide care to formerly enslaved people. She spent her career primarily focused on providing care to women and children.
  • Daniel Hale Williams, MD, performed the world’s first successful open-heart surgery on a human in 1893. Born in Hollidaysburg, Pa., in 1853, Williams earned his medical degree in 1883 from Chicago Medical College. He apprenticed with a surgeon and was one of three Black doctors in the Chicago area at that time. He also was the founder of the first Black-owned hospital, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, founded in 1891. Provident Hospital was the first medical facility in the United States with an interracial staff.
  • Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black professional nurse in the United States. She was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Mass. In 1879, she completed her nursing education at New England Hospital for Women and Children. The program was rigorous, and she was the only Black woman to complete her requirements that year. Of the 40 students in her class, only Mahoney and two other women completed the program’s requirements. Mahoney is one of the original members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which is now known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) to foster inclusive support for Black nurses.
  • Prentiss Harrison became the first Black person to be formally educated as a physician assistant in America in 1968. Harrison graduated from Duke University’s program, which was the first of its kind founded in 1965. Prior to attending the program, Harrison worked as an operating room technician at UNC Chapel Hill Hospital. Throughout his career, he provided care to underserved populations, staffed one of the first rural satellite clinics and provided care to the Indigenous community. He was passionate about his work and eventually founded his own clinic in his hometown, Houston, Texas. Harrison passed away Dec. 11, 2018. 

These outstanding Black Americans paved the way for generations of Black Americans and many other groups in the medical profession. It is an honor to celebrate their accomplishments and pursue my own career in medicine through my work at LVHN.

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