10 Healthcare Pioneers Everyone Should Know About

Maggie Grainger
February 2, 2021
4 min read


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Sojourner Truth

Not only was Sojourner Truth a Black and women’s rights activist, but she was also a nurse. After escaping to freedom in 1826, she worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington D.C. and often spoke before Congress, advocating for nursing education.

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James McCune Smith, MD

After receiving top honors at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, James McCune Smith, MD, returned to the US as the first Black American to receive a medical degree. He was also the first Black person to own and operate a pharmacy and to be published in U.S. medical journals. An abolitionist, he worked closely with Frederick Douglass and helped slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

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Harriet Tubman

Not only did Harriet Tubman help hundreds of slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but during the Civil War, she was also a nurse. After the war ended she started a home for the elderly in Auburn, New York, which is now part of Harriet Tubman National Historic Park.

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Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD

Born in 1831, Rebecca Crumpler went on to become the first Black woman physician in the US. She also published A Book of Medical Discourses in 1883 which focused on maternal and pediatric care.

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Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney is the first Black woman to complete nurse’s training and in 1908 she helped to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. One of the first Black members of the American Nurses Association (ANA), the Mary Mahoney Award, was named in her honor and is considered one of the highest honors in nursing to this day. Mahoney was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame in 1976.

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Daniel Hale Williams, MD

One of the first physicians in the U.S. to perform successful open-heart surgery, Daniel Hale Williams also helped to integrate private hospitals. He founded the Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1891, the first racially integrated doctor and nursing program in the country.

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Solomon Carter Fuller, PhD

After earning his medical degree from Boston University, Solomon Carter Fuller became the first Black psychiatrist. In 1904, he went to Germany where he worked closely with the psychiatrist and neuropathologist, Alois Alzheimer. He devoted much of his career to studying Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

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Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed and gave some of her tissue to a researcher without Lacks’s knowledge or consent while she was a cancer patient there. The story of Henrietta Lacks illustrates some of the racial inequities that are embedded in the U.S. research and healthcare systems. One of her cell’s most recent applications has been in research for vaccines against COVID-19.

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Joycelyn Elders, MD

In 1993, Joycelyn Elders was appointed the first Black-appointed Surgeon General of the United States by President Bill Clinton. Elders strongly advocated for progressive sex and reproductive education, especially in Black communities. She has always been ahead of her time and speaks out for marijuana legalization, as well.

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Patricia Bath, MD

A true visionary, Patricia Bath spent her career advocating for the blind and visually impaired. A pioneer of laser cataract surgery, she founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976, was the first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology, and the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent.

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Maggie Grainger

Maggie Grainger is the Brand Copywriter at Carbon Health. She enjoys writing about diverse healthcare issues and helping people live their healthiest lives.

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