Black Americans have played a big role in medicine

February 17, 2023 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • February is National Black History Month, and Providence is honoring some of the medical pioneers in African American and Black American history. This includes Dr. James McCune Smith, the first Black American doctor to earn a medical degree.

  • At Providence, we strive to represent our patients’ diversity in our caregiver population.

  • We give you some online resources for learning more about Black American history.  

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, first established “Negro History Week,” which would become Black History Month, during the second week of February in 1926 — a week that includes the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, men dedicated to freedom.

When we think about Black History Month and about the history of medicine, it’s important to acknowledge that many Black people have suffered because of experimentation, racism and segregation in the medical field. At the same time, however, we should also remember the Black people who made a huge difference — both for the Black community and for all those who have benefited from their research and innovations.

This February, Providence is honoring Black History Month by highlighting some of the greatest Black pioneers in modern medicine. It’s an important history lesson and a good reminder about how much everyone benefits from diversity in health care.

Dr. James McCune Smith

Dr. Smith was the first Black American doctor to earn a medical degree in 1837 from Glasgow University in Scotland. He returned to the U.S. and was the first to run a pharmacy here. He worked with Frederick Douglass to establish the National Council of the Colored People.

Dr. Alexa Irene Canady

Dr. Canady was the first Black woman to become a neurosurgeon in the U.S. in 1981. She served as chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital in Michigan from 1987-2001.

Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Drew was a Black surgeon and researcher who was the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank. He was also a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital there.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mahoney was the first Black professional nurse in the U.S. She has also been credited as one of the first women to register to vote in Boston after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses established the Mary Mahoney Award, which is given to people who make significant contributions in interracial relationships.

Dr. David Satcher

Dr. Satcher was the 16th Surgeon General of the United States, sworn in on Feb. 13,1998, and was director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1993 to 1998. While he was at the CDC, he increased childhood immunization rates from 55% in 1992 to 78% in 1996.

Dr. Earl Randolph Meyers

Dr. Meyers was known among his colleagues as the “father of Black medicine” in Fresno, California. He built the Fresno-Klette Medical Arts Center in 1957, the first medical facility owned by local Black residents.

Learn about other key Black figures in the mental health field.

The importance of Black health and wellness

At Providence, we work to provide culturally competent, patient-centered care, as well as a diverse and inclusive workforce. Many of the communities we serve are melting pots of different cultures, languages and backgrounds. We strive to represent that diversity in our caregiver populations.

Both our Northern and Southern Providence Diversity & Inclusion Councils (NorCal D&I and SoCal D&I) are leading some of our efforts to raise cultural awareness and promote diversity to help build appreciation for cultural traditions. We are also starting conversations to help educate people about different cultures as a way to create a more welcoming, equitable and inclusive environment. We support diversity education and awareness initiatives, thus deepening our ability to provide compassionate care and honor human dignity.

Our Black Caregiver Resource Group (BCRG) is helping to drive equity by amplifying the voices of our Black caregivers. That includes empowering them throughout their careers. The group hopes to build a pipeline of Black caregivers who can lead the organization in the years to come.

Celebrate Black History Month

During Black History Month, take some time to learn about Black history in your area by finding an event or exhibit to attend during the month-long celebration. Or, you can visit these online resources, where you can learn more year-round:

Lighting a path

However you honor Black History Month, know there’s not just one right way. You can support a Black-owned business or read a book by a Black author. The goal is raising awareness, and righting wrongs where we see them.

At Providence, we’ll continue with our celebration of Black history by prioritizing diversity and inclusion in our workforce and in the services we provide. There’s still work to be done: In the field of mental health, for example, only 4% of psychologists, 2% of psychiatrists, 22% of social workers, 7% of marriage and family counselors, and 11% of professional counselors identified as Black/African American. 

We’ll look to the past to learn from the Black trailblazers of modern medicine. And we’ll look to the future for opportunities to achieve a more fair and equitable society.

Find a doctor

If you want to learn more about proactive health screenings, exercise regimens, nutrition and more, you can find a Providence geriatric specialist or a primary care provider using our provider directory.

Download the Providence App

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Important conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion

Expanding colorectal cancer screening in communities of color

The importance of racial concordance in health care

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.


About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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