The contributions of African American physicians and nurses in the advancement of medicine should be celebrated and not overlooked. The following are stories of African American women who pushed forward and made a difference.
Mary E. Mahoney was the first black woman to earn a professional nursing license. She was born in 1845 in Boston, Massachusetts 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.
When she was in her teens, Ms. Mahoney began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The hospital provided healthcare only to women and their children. The hospital had an all-women staff of physicians. Ms. Mahoney worked at the hospital for 15 years in a variety of roles such as janitor, cook, and washerwomen. She also worked as a nurse’s aide.
The New England Hospital for Women and Children operated one of the first nursing schools in the United States. In 1878, at the age of 33, Ms. Mahoney was admitted to the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. Of the 42 students that entered the program in 1878, only four completed it in 1879. Ms. Mahoney was one of the women who finished the program, making her the first African American in the U.S. to earn a professional nursing license.
In 1896, Ms. Mahoney joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). The NAAUSC consisted mainly of white members. Ms. Mahoney felt that a group was needed which advocated for the equality of African American nurses. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN).
She retired from nursing after 40 years in the profession. She continued to champion women’s rights. Ms. Mahoney was among the first women who registered to vote in Boston after the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920.
In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award in honor of her achievements. This award is given to nurses or groups of nurses who promote integration within their field. The award continues to be awarded today by the American Nurses Association.
Other prominent African Americans women in medicine include:
- Rebecca Crumpler, MD. Dr. Crumpler was the first black woman awarded a medical degree from a U.S. college. She graduated from New England Female Medical College in Boston. Her Book of Medical Discourses was published in 1883, which provided medical advice for women and children.
- Helen Dickens, MD. Dr. Dickens was the first black woman admitted as a fellow to the American College of Surgeons in 1950. The only black woman in her graduating class, Dr. Dickens earned her medical degree from the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1934. In 1945, she passed the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology board examinations, making her the first African American woman to hold the certification in Philadelphia. Dr. Dickens dedicated her career to women’s health and well-being, focusing on the lives of young women, low-income women, and women of color.
- Edith Irby Jones, MD. Dr. Jones was the first African American to attend and to graduate from the University of Arkansas Medical School, now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1952. She was the first African American to be accepted at any medical school in the South. Not only was she a pioneer in the desegregation of higher education in Arkansas and the South, but she also has served as a highly successful doctor, educator, and philanthropist in Arkansas, Texas, and overseas.
- Patricia Bath, MD. Dr. Bath became the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973, which led to her appointment two years later as the first woman faculty member at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1988, Bath became the first African American woman physician to receive a medical patent for her Laserphaco Probe, which improved cataract treatment.
- Alexa Canady-Davis, MD. In 1981, Dr. Canady became the first female African American neurosurgeon in the United States. In her most notable role, she served as chief of neurosurgery at Detroit-based Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 to 2001. Under her guidance, the department gained national recognition and has consistently been ranked among America’s best pediatric neurosurgery programs in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals list.
- Joycelyn Elders, MD. Dr. Elders was confirmed as the sixteenth surgeon general of the United States on September 7, 1993. She is the first African American and the second female to head the U.S. Public Health Service. During her fifteen months as surgeon general, Dr. Elders added tobacco use, national health care, and drug and alcohol abuse to her list of major concerns.
We salute these women of color who advanced the field of medicine and stood for racial equality.