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Paving the Way for African Americans in Military Medicine: A Look Across Time

Colorful banner with the words Black History Month

Honoring the achievements of African Americans throughout U.S. history, Black History Month is celebrated each February. Early celebratory events date back to February 1926 which encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The observance was expanded to a month-long celebration in 1976 and has since been commemorated by every president.

Let's take a look back at just a few of the many trailblazers who have made great strides in medicine while combatting the challenges faced by the African American community. We honor them and thank them for their contributions to health and medicine.

1837

Dr. James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn his medical degree. At the time, Dr. Smith was barred from earning his degree in the U.S. due to his race, causing him to travel to Glasgow, Scotland to complete his education. Upon his return to New York, he became the first university-trained Black physician to practice medicine and publish articles in medical journals in the U.S. He went on to work alongside abolitionist Frederick Douglass to put an end to slavery and establish the National Council of the Colored People.  Read more: https://www.edi.nih.gov/blog/communities/history-Black-scientists-ruth-ella-moore-james-mccune-smith

Dr. James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn his medical degree. At the time, Dr. Smith was barred from earning his degree in the U.S. due to his race, causing him to travel to Glasgow, Scotland to complete his education. Upon his return to New York, he became the first university-trained Black physician to practice medicine and publish articles in medical journals in the U.S. He went on to work alongside abolitionist Frederick Douglass to put an end to slavery and establish the National Council of the Colored People.

Read more: https://www.edi.nih.gov/blog/communities/history-Black-scientists-ruth-ella-moore-james-mccune-smith

1847

David Jones Peck was the first African American to receive a medical degree in the United States. While his presence at Chicago’s Rush Medical College in 1846-1847 was objected to by many, Peck’s fellow students voted on his admittance, and he successfully completed the requirements for graduation in 1847. Following his graduation, Peck toured Ohio with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and others before establishing his medical practice in 1848.  Find more about the life of David Jones Peck here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2608104/pdf/jnma00386-0080.pdf

David Jones Peck was the first African American to receive a medical degree in the United States. While his presence at Chicago’s Rush Medical College in 1846-1847 was objected to by many, Peck’s fellow students voted on his admittance, and he successfully completed the requirements for graduation in 1847. Following his graduation, Peck toured Ohio with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and others before establishing his medical practice in 1848.

Find more about the life of David Jones Peck here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2608104/pdf/jnma00386-0080.pdf

1863

Alexander T. Augusta is among 13 known African Americans that served as surgeons during the American Civil War.

Alexander T. Augusta is among 13 known African Americans that served as surgeons during the American Civil War. A native Virginian, Augusta traveled to Canada to study medicine and achieve his degree. 

Following his request to President Lincoln, Dr. Alexander Augusta was the first commissioned medical officer in the Union Army. Augusta would later become the first Black surgeon to lead a hospital in the U.S., leading the contraband camp in Washington, D.C. from May through October 1863.

Augusta was also the first African American to serve on the faculty of a medical school in the United States, serving, at the time, the newly established medical department of Howard University in 1868.

Read more: https://circulatingnow.nlm.nih.gov/2014/04/04/a-civil-war-surgeons-books-rediscovered/

1864

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler began her career as a nurse but went on to become the first female African American to earn a medical degree back in 1864.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler began her career as a nurse but went on to become the first female African American to earn a medical degree back in 1864. When the Civil War ended, Crumpler moved her practice to Richmond, Virginia. There, she worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, tending to the health of newly freed slaves. You can read more about Crumpler and other trailblazing female physicians here: https://www.nps.gov/people/dr-rebecca-lee-crumpler.htm.

1864

Charles B. Purvis

Charles B. Purvis was born in Philadelphia in 1842, the son of famed abolitionists Robert Purvis and Harriet Forten. At the age of eighteen he enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio, earning a bachelor’s degree in science in 1863. He then entered medical school at Wooster Medical College in Cleveland. In 1864 Purvis served in the Union Army in the US Civil War as a military nurse at Camp Barker. He then graduated from Western Reserve in March 1865, where he completed medical training. Two months after graduation he took the position of acting assistant surgeon with a rank of first lieutenant and was assigned to duty in Washington, DC.

In Washington, D.C. He was among the founders of the medical school at Howard University. He was the first black physician to attend a sitting president when he attended President James Garfield after he was shot by an assassin in 1881, he was the first black physician to head a hospital under civilian authority when he was made surgeon-in-charge of the Freedmen's Hospital that same year. He was first black person to serve on the D. C. Board of Medical Examiners and the second black instructor at an American medical school. He was also a leading activist in civil rights and universal suffrage movements.

1895

In 1895, Dr. Robert Boyd co-founded the National Medical Association (NMA), which represents U.S. African American doctors and medical professionals. Jim Crow laws were a major obstacle for Black physicians at the time. Even the American Medical Association barred Black doctors from becoming members. Boyd, who served as the first NMA president, established the NMA to make sure that Black physicians had a voice in shaping medical policy and developing clinical expertise. Read more: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2617285/pdf/jnma00613-0075.pdf

In 1895, Dr. Robert Boyd co-founded the National Medical Association (NMA), which represents U.S. African American doctors and medical professionals. Jim Crow laws were a major obstacle for Black physicians at the time. Even the American Medical Association barred Black doctors from becoming members. Boyd, who served as the first NMA president, established the NMA to make sure that Black physicians had a voice in shaping medical policy and developing clinical expertise. Read more: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2617285/pdf/jnma00613-0075.pdf.

1906

Adah Belle Thoms

In 1906, Adah Belle Thoms was named assistant superintendent of nurses at Lincoln Hospital in New York. While she would spend the next 18 years acting as director, her race precluded her from being given the title, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Thoms cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and served as the organization’s president from 1916 to 1923, and later successfully lobbied for Black nurses to serve in the American Red Cross Nursing and Army Nurse Corps during WWI.

Thoms published the first chronicle of the history of black nurses in America with her book “Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses.” She was one the original inductees to the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976.

1914-1918

Dr. Louis T. Wright joined the Army Medical Corps, serving as a lieutenant during World War I, stationed in France. While there, he introduced intradermal vaccination for smallpox and was awarded the Purple Heart after a gas attack.  Dr. Wright was one of 104 African American doctors who served the 40,000 Black troops who saw combat during WWI. Wright, who lived until 1952—despite a gas-inhalation injury that permanently affected his lungs—helped pioneer the use of chemotherapy, became the first African American physician on an integrated hospital staff, and challenged stereotypes about Black people through his civil rights activism.  Learn more about Dr. Wright: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.90.6.883

Dr. Louis T. Wright joined the Army Medical Corps, serving as a lieutenant during World War I, stationed in France. While there, he introduced intradermal vaccination for smallpox and was awarded the Purple Heart after a gas attack.

Dr. Wright was one of 104 African American doctors who served the 40,000 Black troops who saw combat during WWI. Wright, who lived until 1952—despite a gas-inhalation injury that permanently affected his lungs—helped pioneer the use of chemotherapy, became the first African American physician on an integrated hospital staff, and challenged stereotypes about Black people through his civil rights activism.

Learn more about Dr. Wright: https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.90.6.883

1933

Dr. Ruth Ella Moore was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in the natural sciences. She began her studies earning a B.S. in 1926 and an M.S. in 1927 from Ohio State University. She supported herself during graduate school by teaching English and hygiene at Tennessee State College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville. Her dissertation on tuberculosis earned her a doctorate in bacteriology in 1933 from Ohio State University.   Dr. Moore was hired as an assistant professor at Howard University Medical College in 1940 where she chaired the bacteriology department from 1947 to 1958. During her tenure at Howard, she was promoted to associate professor. She continued to teach and conduct research on bacteriology at Howard until she retired in 1973. Her research at Howard focused on blood groups and enterobacteriaceae, a family of bacteria which includes salmonella and E. coli.  You can find more about Dr. Moore here: https://www.edi.nih.gov/blog/communities/history-Black-scientists-ruth-ella-moore-james-mccune-smith

Dr. Ruth Ella Moore was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in the natural sciences. She began her studies earning a B.S. in 1926 and an M.S. in 1927 from Ohio State University. She supported herself during graduate school by teaching English and hygiene at Tennessee State College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville. Her dissertation on tuberculosis earned her a doctorate in bacteriology in 1933 from Ohio State University.

Dr. Moore was hired as an assistant professor at Howard University Medical College in 1940 where she chaired the bacteriology department from 1947 to 1958. During her tenure at Howard, she was promoted to associate professor. She continued to teach and conduct research on bacteriology at Howard until she retired in 1973. Her research at Howard focused on blood groups and enterobacteriaceae, a family of bacteria which includes salmonella and E. coli.

You can find more about Dr. Moore here: https://www.edi.nih.gov/blog/communities/history-Black-scientists-ruth-ella-moore-james-mccune-smith

1941

Often referred to as the “Father of Blood Banks” because he developed transformative ways to store and process blood plasma, Dr. Charles Drew spearheaded a blood bank for the American Red Cross to be used for U.S. military personnel in 1941.  Dr. Drew pioneered the use and preservation of blood plasma during World War II, saving the lives of thousands of U.S. troops. His discoveries translated to the civilian sector, giving rise to the modern blood banking system. Read more: https://www.health.mil/News/Gallery/Videos/2017/02/09/Dr-Charles-Drew-The-Man-Who-Saved-a-Million-Soldiers-Lives

Often referred to as the “Father of Blood Banks” because he developed transformative ways to store and process blood plasma, Dr. Charles Drew spearheaded a blood bank for the American Red Cross to be used for U.S. military personnel in 1941.

Dr. Drew pioneered the use and preservation of blood plasma during World War II, saving the lives of thousands of U.S. troops. His discoveries translated to the civilian sector, giving rise to the modern blood banking system. Learn more: https://www.health.mil/News/Gallery/Videos/2017/02/09/Dr-Charles-Drew-The-Man-Who-Saved-a-Million-Soldiers-Lives.

1941

In 1941, Major Raney Jackson became the first Black nurse to be commissioned in the U.S. Army.   After the war, she was assigned to head the nursing staff at the station hospital at Camp Beale, California.  In 1946, she was promoted to major and served a tour of duty in Japan.  Major Raney Jackson retired in 1978. Learn more about her story: https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/african-american-nurses-world-war-ii

In 1941, Major Raney Jackson became the first Black nurse to be commissioned in the U.S. Army.

After the war, she was assigned to head the nursing staff at the station hospital at Camp Beale, California.  In 1946, she was promoted to major and served a tour of duty in Japan.  Major Raney Jackson retired in 1978. Learn more about her story: https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/african-american-nurses-world-war-ii.

1952

Dr. Alvin Vincent Blount Jr. attended medical school at Howard University during the 1940s in Washington, DC, where he studied under Dr. Charles Drew.   He was deployed to Korea in 1952 and became the first Black chief of surgery in a MASH unit. During his tour, he and his team performed 90 major and minor surgeries each week. Learn more about his story: https://www.army.mil/article/217374/black_history_month_recalling_the_first_african_american_mash_surgeon

Dr. Alvin Vincent Blount Jr. attended medical school at Howard University during the 1940s in Washington, DC, where he studied under Dr. Charles Drew.

He was deployed to Korea in 1952 and became the first Black chief of surgery in a MASH unit. During his tour, he and his team performed 90 major and minor surgeries each week. Learn more about his story: https://www.army.mil/article/217374/black_history_month_recalling_the_first_african_american_mash_surgeon.

1955

Brig Gen Hazel Johnson-Brown

Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown enlisted in the military in 1955, just seven years after President Harry S. Truman moved to integrate the United States Armed Forces and abolish discrimination.

As she continued to advance her education, she was named director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing and was named Army Nurse of the Year two times. In 1979, she was nominated as the 16th chief of the Army Nurse Corps and promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first African American woman to earn the rank. Following her retirement, she entered academia, serving as a professor of nursing at Georgetown University and George Mason University.

1972

In 1972, Army Col. Tony Polk became the second African America to enroll in the Armed Services Blood Program’s Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program.  Polk would go on to serve in the Pacific blood program during the Vietnam War and later as the overall person in charge of military blood banking in Europe. Polk would later become the director of the Department of Defense Military Blood Program Office and would transform the various military blood programs into what would become the Armed Services Blood Program of today.  Read more about Col. Polk at ASBP: https://www.militaryblood.dod.mil/viewcontent.aspx?con_id_pk=1233#:~:text=When%20the%20military%20started%20training%20non-physicians%20to%20be,the%20U.S.%20Army%20Blood%20Bank%20Fellowship%20Program%20.

In 1972, Army Col. Tony Polk became the second African America to enroll in the Armed Services Blood Program’s Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program.

Polk would go on to serve in the Pacific blood program during the Vietnam War and later as the overall person in charge of military blood banking in Europe. Polk would later become the director of the Department of Defense Military Blood Program Office and would transform the various military blood programs into what would become the Armed Services Blood Program of today.

1980

Brig Gen Guthrie Turner Jr

Brigadier General Guthrie Turner Jr. was the first African American to achieve the rank of general officer in the Army Medical Corps and the first African American to command an Army hospital – serving as Madigan Army Medical Center's commanding general from 1980 to 1983.

After his retirement from the military, Dr. Turner entered a second career as the Medicaid Director of the Medicaid Assistance Administration of the Department of Social and Human Services for the State of Washington. A man who believed in service, Dr. Turner donated his time to many organizations such as Shaw University, the Franciscan Health Network, the National Medical Association, the Madigan Foundation Board, the Tacoma Urban League, and Oberlin Congregational Church.

2007

Master Chief Laura A. Martinez was the first African American and second woman to serve as force master chief and director of the Hospital Corps.

Appointed the 12th Force Master Chief and the Director of the Hospital Corps in November 2007, Master Chief Laura A. Martinez holds the distinction as the first African American and second woman to serve in this role.

Over the course of her 32 years of active service, Martinez held various command executive leadership positions including Command Master Chief of Field Medical Training Battalion-East, National Capitol Area/National Naval Medical Center, and 2nd Marine Logistics Group.

>>Take a look back at all Navy Medicine Leadership

2013

In 2013, Lt. Gen. Nadja West was the first black female major general of the Army

In 2013, Lt. Gen. Nadja West became the first black female major general of the Army's active component, and was Army Medicine's first African American female two-star general. In 2015, she was the first African American appointed as the U.S. Army Surgeon General. And, in 2016, Lt. Gen. West became the first black female lieutenant general and the highest-ranking woman to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy.

>>Learn more about Lt. Gen. West

2018

Army Colonel Audra L. Taylor is the current U.S. Department of Defense Division Chief of the Armed Services Blood Program, holding the office since 2018.

Army Col. Audra L. Taylor served as the Division Chief of the Defense Health Agency’s Armed Services Blood Program. Her leadership was instrumental in achieving the Department of Defense’s goal to acquire more than 10,000 units of COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma by Sept. 30, 2020, surpassing the goal set by then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

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