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“I want a new doctor!” – Two Black medical pioneers that you probably don’t know

Elise Cuff, contributor

Many people are aware of the traumatic history surrounding Black people and medicine. Racist medical practices have led to cruel experiments and the exclusion of Black people from the field. Theories from these practices have even been used to justify racism. However, the contributions of Black people in the medical field are often overlooked.  

In these closing moments of Black History Month, I want to acknowledge Black contributions to the medical field. We often hear about Black trauma, but we must also give recognition to the achievements of our Black pioneers. 

Vivien Thomas:

Vivien T. Thomas was born in New Iberia, Louisiana in 1910. Thomas was studying agriculture but had to drop out of college due to the Great Depression. Afterward, he worked as a lab assistant before becoming a cardiology surgeon. During his time as a surgeon in the 1940s, a condition called blue baby syndrome was very common. This condition caused death in newborns due to an incomplete growth in heart arteries. After years of research and trials on dogs, Thomas was able to figure out a way to reverse this condition. With this discovery, Thomas gave the world a way to extend the life of newborn patients. Unfortunately, Thomas was initially not given credit for this discovery due to racial bias. Though Thomas died in 1985, his legacy lives on through a biopic of his life titled “Something the Lord Made”. Thomas continues to be an inspiration to future Black medical professionals. 

Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler:

Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman physician, was born free in Christiana, Delaware in 1831. Crumpler was interested in medicine from a young age. Much of her inspiration came from her aunt, who was also in the medical profession. She began working as a nurse at age 13. She went on to attend the Massachusetts female medical college in 1860. Her acceptance was highly unusual at the time due to the history of the schools’ acceptance rate of Black students. Out of the 54,000 medical physicians in the United States at the time, there were 300 women, all of whom were white. Crumpler continued on to practice medicine in Boston.  She specialized in treating women and children. She also worked to give poor people access to treatment. In 1883 she published a medical guide book titled “Book of Medical Discourses”. Dr. Crumpler was a pioneer in breaking down barriers for Black women in the medical field. 

Though I have only listed two Black medical pioneers, there are many more who deserve respect and recognition. Though Black History Month is almost over, I encourage those interested in medicine to research more Black medical pioneers throughout the year.