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Nine Black Pioneers Who Made History in the Medical Field

There are more black history facts than days in the year, giving us the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of so many that came before us. The strength and fortitude alone should be a reminder that we are our ancestor’s wildest dreams and we are capable of continuing the quest for equity.

While there are more healthcare pioneers than we can count, we are shining a light on these nine men and women who played a role in shifting the medical field. We still have many challenges to overcome, but without them, healthcare would not be where it is today.

Louis Wade Sullivan, MD

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Louis Wade Sullivan, MD, grew up in the racially segregated rural South in the 1930s. There, he was inspired by his doctor, Joseph Griffin. “He was the only black physician in a radius of 100 miles,” Sullivan said. “I saw that Dr. Griffin was really doing something important and he was highly respected in the community.”

Over the decades, Sullivan became an equally profound source of inspiration. The only black student in his class at Boston University School of Medicine, he would later serve on the faculty from 1966 to 1975. In 1975, he became the founding dean of what became the Morehouse School of Medicine — the first predominantly black medical school opened in the United States in the 20th century. Later, Sullivan was tapped to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he directed the creation of the Office of Minority Programs in the National Institutes of Health’s Office of the Director.

Sullivan has chaired numerous influential groups and institutions, from the President’s Advisory Council on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the National Health Museum. He is CEO and chair of the Sullivan Alliance, an organization he created in 2005 to increase racial and ethnic minority representation in health care.

Regina Marcia Benjamin, MD, MBA

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Dr. Benjamin is the first African American woman to become president of the state medical society of Alabama. She may be best known for her tenure as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General, during which she served as first chair of the National Prevention Council. The group of 17 federal agencies was responsible for developing the National Prevention Strategy, which outlined plans to improve health and well-being in the United States.

But it’s not just her work at the highest levels of public health that earned her praise. Long before she was appointed “the nation’s doctor” in 2009, Benjamin worked extensively with rural communities in the South. She is the founder and CEO of BayouClinic in Bayou La Batre, Louisiana, which provides clinical care, social services, and health education to residents of the small Gulf Coast town. Benjamin helped rebuild the clinic several more times, including after damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a fire in 2006. Of the clinic, she said she hopes that she is “making a difference in my community by providing a clinic where patients can come and receive health care with dignity.”

Herbert W. Nickens, MD

As the first director of the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 1986, Herbert W. Nickens, MD, set the foundation for promoting improved health among racial and ethnic minority populations across the country. When he left the HHS, Nickens moved to the AAMC, where he was the founding vice president of the AAMC Division of Community and Minority Programs, now known as Diversity Policy and Programs. He led Project 3000 by 2000, which the AAMC launched in 1991 to achieve the goal of enrolling 3,000 students from underrepresented minority groups in U.S. medical schools annually by the year 2000.

“No one in recent memory did more than Herbert Nickens to bridge the painful and persistent diversity gap in medicine,” said then-AAMC President Jordan J. Cohen, MD, after Nickens’ death in 1999. The AAMC continues to remember Nickens’ legacy with three namesake awards, honoring outstanding medical students, junior faculty, and individuals who have made significant contributions toward social justice in academic medicine and health care equity.

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Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller

Solomon Carter Fuller’s grandparents were medical missionaries in Liberia, and he grew up with a strong interest in medicine. After earning his medical degree in 1897 from Boston University, he became the first African American psychiatrist.

In 1904, he began pioneering work with the psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in Germany, studying the traits of dementia. Dr. Fuller was the first to translate much of Alzheimer’s work into English, including research regarding Auguste Deter, the person with the first reported case of the disease.

When he returned to the United States, Fuller continued research on Alzheimer’s disease, as well as schizophrenia, depression, and other mental illness. In 1912, he published the first comprehensive review of Alzheimer’s cases.

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Otis Boykin

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The inventor Otis Boykin patented 28 electronic devices during his career. He developed resistors for electronic components that made the production of televisions and computers much more affordable, but Boykin became best known for improving the pacemaker.

The pacemaker uses electrical impulses to help people maintain a regular heartbeat. Boykin came up with a control unit that regulated the pacemaker with more precision. He died of heart failure in 1982.

Albert W. Dent

With a background in accounting and business administration, Albert W. Dent entered healthcare in 1932 when he was hired as superintendent of Flint-Goodridge Hospital, then one of the nation’s leading hospitals for Black Americans. In 1941, Dent was elected president of Dillard University and established a college nursing program, which became the first nationally accredited college nursing program in Louisiana.

Dent served as president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes, and was on the boards of the National Merit Scholarship Program, the Ford Fund for the Advancement of Education and the American Council of Education. Dent was also the first Black healthcare leader to become a Fellow of ACHE (formerly the American College of Hospital Administrators).

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William G. Anderson, DO

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When William G. Anderson was a young man in Americus, Ga., the only higher education available to Black students nearby was a junior college that offered training in agriculture and homemaking. Instead, Anderson attended the Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine. He returned to Georgia, where he founded and led the Albany Civil Rights Movement, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other leaders to advance the health and well-being of Black communities.

In 1964, Anderson became the first Black surgical resident in Detroit’s history and, in 1994, he became the first Black president of the American Osteopathic Association.

Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell

In 1895, Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell helped rally African Americans in Philadelphia to establish the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, one of the first hospitals in the United States where black doctors treated black patients.

Also a surgeon, Mossell served as the hospital’s chief of staff and medical director for more than three decades. He championed women in medicine and was a civil rights activist.

The native of Hamilton, Canada, died in 1946. He was 90.

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Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas

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A former carpenter, Dr. Vivien Theodore Thomas dropped out of college after losing most of his savings during the Great Depression.

Later trained as a surgical assistant, Thomas in 1944 helped devise the “blue baby surgery” with surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock and pediatric cardiologist Dr. Helen Taussig at The Johns Hopkins Hospital to correct a congenital heart defect known as tetralogy of Fallot. He was the subject of the 2004 HBO film “Something the Lord Made.”

The native of Louisiana died in 1985. He was 75.

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