Black History Month is an annual celebration of the achievements of Black Americans in U.S. History. We have gathered together a few highlights on people, primarily women, in medicine and science, who have inspired and impacted us.
The Black Panther Party
The Black Panther Party helped introduce acupuncture to the U.S. mainstream through their free healthcare programs that brought acupuncture to communities all over the States. These programs originally started in the ’70s because of the drug crisis in the inner-city black population.
The Black Panthers were fed up with the government’s lack of assistance in regards to the drug crisis, and they took matters into their own hands. One day, the Black Panther Party, together with members of what was known as the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement, walked into the nurse’s residence building at Lincoln Hospital and claimed it as their own.
This building was no longer functioning anyway, so they decided to turn it into something useful. After dealing with the police trying to shut them down (though not succeeding), they started the first treatment center for black people that used acupuncture to help with treating addiction.
The NADA protocol was created in this center, and it is now used in hospitals, veteran centers, and rehab centers all over the country. Their contribution to acupuncture didn’t stop there – they went on the create one of the first acupuncture schools in America called the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture.
Acupuncture achieving popularity and hitting the mainstream in the U.S. is in many thanks to the Black Panther Party for forging forward with their knowledge of acupuncture and its many uses to treat people.
Alice Ball, Chemist
Alice Ball was a chemist who, in her early twenties, developed the most effective treatment for leprosy, which was used for decades. Prior to Ball’s discovery, traditional healers in India and parts of Southeast Asia used a specific oil from the Chaulmoogra tree to treat leprosy either through ingestion or topically on the skin. They weren’t able to administer it intravenously as the oil was incredibly thick, which meant excruciating injections. Ultimately, this would be the key.
Enter: Alice Ball. She was a chemist with dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy. She moved to Hawaii to do graduate work. She became the first African American and the first woman to graduate from the University of Hawaii with a master’s degree.
In 1916, Ball successfully isolated the fatty acid compounds from the oil (now known to be the antimicrobial hydnocarpic acid) and made the first preparation of a water-soluble, injectable form of chaulmoogra oil. The treatment was used globally for 30 years.
Ball died when she was 24 years old, just one year after her discovery. The President of the University of Hawaii, Arthur Dean, “continued her studies” and claimed he had made the discovery himself and even went on to call it the “Dean Method.” In 2000, almost a century after Ball’s discovery, the University of Hawaii officially, and finally, recognized Ball for her groundbreaking discovery.
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, Physician and Cancer Researcher
Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was a physician and cancer researcher who defied both gender and racial barriers in a profession long dominated by white men. She dedicated her career to the advancement of cancer treatment and helped make chemotherapy a viable treatment option.
In the 1940s, chemotherapy was thought of as a “last resort” and was still in the experimental stages of drug development. As a result, the types of drugs available (as well as their prescribed dosages) weren’t well defined.
From an already distinguished medical family, Wright began her career as a researcher, working alongside her father at a cancer center he established at Harlem Hospital in New York.
Together, Jane and her father were among the first groups of researchers to discover the use of nitrogen-mustard as a treatment for cancer that led to remissions in patients with several major cancer types. Before this, many blood cancers were seen as incurable. When her father died in 1952, She took over as director of the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation.
In 1967, Dr. Wright became a professor of surgery at New York Medical College. At the time, she was the highest-ranking African American woman in a United States medical institution.
Her contributions to chemotherapy research have helped to change the face of medicine and continue to be used to this day.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, Physician and Author
In 1864, a time where advanced education for women was rare, Dr. Crumpler graduated from medical school and became the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.
She started her first medical practice in Boston, but when the war ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, to help the freed slaves who otherwise would not have had access to medical care. In Crumpler’s words, racism was still widespread, which made it “a proper field for real missionary work.”
A few years later, in 1869, she returned to Boston and created a new practice centered around caring for women and children. Passionate about women’s health, she wrote A Book of Medical Discourses: a book for women to provide them with information on how to care for their own health and the health of their families.
Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens, Physician and Professor
Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens was born in 1909 in Dayton, Ohio, to Charles Warren Dickens, a former slave and water boy during the Civil War, and Daisy Jane Dickens, a domestic servant to the Reynolds family of paper manufacturers. Though her father was an educated man (he took his name after meeting the famous English novelist Charles Dickens), social prejudice restricted him to janitorial work. Helen was adamant that the same wouldn’t happen to her despite the abuse that she had encountered from her classmates early on in life.
Helen attended the University of Illinois after Dr. Elizabeth Hill, the first African American to graduate from the institution, helped her register. She earned her M.D. in 1934 as the only African American to do so. After completing her internship at Provident Hospital, a predominantly African American and poorly funded hospital in south Chicago, Dr. Dickens got her first job at Virginia Alexander’s Aspiranto Health Home in Philadelphia in 1935, where she, in addition to her general practice, provided obstetric and gynecologic care.
Following six successful years in Philadelphia, Dr. Dickens returned to Provident Hospital to complete her residency and specialize in obstetric and gynecology. She completed her Master of Science and residency in 1945 and 1946, respectively. In addition to reaching her field’s zenith, Dr. Dickens used her work to educate and empower younger women and led extensive research into teen pregnancy and sexual health issues. She was given numerous accolades and awards.