Celebrating Black History: Pioneers of Healthcare and Medicine
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Celebrating Black History: Pioneers of Healthcare and Medicine


In honor of Black History Month, Senior Helpers is highlighting noteworthy pioneers in healthcare and medicine. These industry leaders are only a handful of individuals who have made and continue to make a profound impact in the world of medicine and on our society. These men and women have not only changed the face of medicine, but did so while breaking barriers, facing racism and stereotypes. 

Celebrating Black History: Pioneers of Healthcare and Medicine

Daniel Hale Williams (1856 – 1931)  

In 1893, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams successfully performed one of the first open heart surgeries in the world. After graduating from Chicago Medical College in 1883, Dr. Williams was denied access to multiple hospitals in Chicago due to his race. In 1891, he founded Provident Hospital (today known as Cook County Health), the first black hospital and facility to train black nurses and doctors in America. Dr. Williams is best known for his achievements in surgery and as an advocate for equal access to medical care and training for African Americans.  


Frederick Jones (1893 – 1961) 

In 1935, Frederick Jones invented the first portable refrigeration unit for trucks carrying perishable items.  While Jones has patented over 60 inventions, he is most known for this system which eliminated the use of salt and ice trucks to preserve items. This invention was revolutionary for transporting goods in trucks, railcars, and ships. Americans were now able to enjoy fresh produce all year round. Jones co-founded Thermo King, a company still present today. His refrigeration technology led him to design portable refrigeration units for military camps, during World War II.  


Charles Drew (1904 – 1950)  

In the late 1930s, Dr. Charles Drew was known as the “father of blood banking”. He created blood preserving techniques that led to thousands of lifesaving blood donations. Drew was known as the pioneer of blood transfusions. During World War II, he successfully shipped tens of thousands of units of plasma to England. His success enabled him to lead the first American Red Cross Blood Bank and much more.  


Patricia Bath (1942 – 2019)  

In 1986, Dr. Patricia Bath discovered and invented the seraphic, a new device and technique for cataract surgery. An ophthalmologist and laser scientist, Dr. Bath is best known for her creation of “community ophthalmology”, a discipline that combines aspects of public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology to offer primary care to underserved populations, which is now used worldwide.  


Alexa Canady (b. 1950)  

In 1980, Dr. Alexa Canady became the first female African American neurosurgeon in the United States. While in college, she almost dropped out due to a “crisis of confidence,” but overcame it when she graduated cum laude in 1975 from University of Michigan Medical School. Dr. Canady went on to practice neurosurgery for decades and eventually retired in 2001 as Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan. After moving to Florida, she came out of retirement to aid Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola in pediatric neurosurgery.  


From open heart surgery to laser science, portable refrigeration systems, military service and more. These trailblazers have laid the foundation for profound change in modern medicine. Though it was no easy feat, they have fought through many obstacles, to provide equal opportunities and access to medicine. For more information, visit the resources below:  


Celebrating 10 African-American medical pioneers | AAMC 

04_daniel_hale_williams.ashx (facs.org) 

Charles Richard Drew (1904–1950): Father of blood banking (nih.gov) 

Frederick Jones | Lemelson (mit.edu) 

Changing the Face of Medicine | Alexa Irene Canady (nih.gov) 

Changing the Face of Medicine | Patricia E. Bath (nih.gov)