Monday, February 19, 2018 2:13 PM

Celebrating Black History Month: Pioneers in Healthcare

Every February we mark the contributions of African Americans during Black History Month. I always paid attention to the contributions of those in healthcare. Their example of persevering spurred me to achieve – and eventually become part of the healthcare team here at Community Medical Centers.

Having diverse caregivers is especially crucial in a place like the Central San Joaquin Valley that’s a melding pot of so many cultures and the place many, many immigrants land first. Our patients speak more than 100 different languages, come from different cultural perspectives, and have different ideas about medicine and different approaches to optimum health. Our job is to try to understand their culture. We must bridge the understanding gap and empower them to make choices about their own health. It takes a diversity of caregivers with a diversity of life experiences to work as a team to do that.

That’s why during Black History Month I wanted to share the stories that inspired me. Here in Fresno we have Dr. Fitzalbert Marius, who was part of the team that performed the first open heart surgery in Fresno in 1958.

Dr. Marius grew up in Harlem in New York City and spoke three languages by the time he was 3 and became a master tailor at 17. Dr Marius served in the segregated medical unit in the U.S.  Army during WWII (1942-1946).  After the war he completed studies at the university and his classmates urged him to apply to medical school instead of following his first love of art and clothing design. He flipped a coin to make his decision. Lucky for us the coin landed on heads and he entered Howard Medical School in Washington D.C.  

After completing medical school, Dr Marius followed with a residency in Fresno. He was a surgeon for 49 years in Fresno and still assisted in heart surgeries at Fresno Heart & Surgical Hospital and St. Agnes Medical Center until he was 90. In 2016, his peers at the Fresno Madera Medical Society appropriately honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Here are 20 more inspiring medical pioneers. I hope you share them with your family and friends and I hope they inspire more people to follow in their footsteps.

  1. Dr James McCune Smith- was the first African-American Physician to earn a medical degree in 1837 and graduate from Glasgow University in Scotland.  He returned to America and was the first to run a pharmacy in the nation.  He was the medical doctor for a colored orphan asylum in lower Manhattan, New York.

  2. Dr Rebecca Lee Crumpler- was the first African-American woman to become a medical doctor in America.  She graduated in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College and later practiced in Boston, MA and Richmond, VA

  3. Dr Patricia Bath- The first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention. Her patent #4744360 was for removing cataracts. She transformed eye surgery, using a laser device which makes the procedure more accurate.

  4. Dr. James Hutchinson- one of the first African-American doctors in California – and the first in the Bay Area.  He practiced family medicine in San Mateo California. He received his degree from Meharry Medical College of Medicine a historical Black College in 1952.  He is one of the founding doctors of Planned Parenthood and Project Go.

  5. Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African-American professional nurse in the United States.  Mahoney was admitted to the nursing school of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, and became the first African-American woman to complete nurse's training in 1879. She was also one of the first African-American members of the American Nurses Association, and has been credited as one of the first women to register to vote in Boston following the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Mahoney was inducted into both the Nursing Hall of Fame and the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1909, Mahoney gave the welcome address at the first conference of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). In recognition of her outstanding example to nurses of all races, NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936. When NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association in 1951, the award was continued. Today, the Mary Mahoney Award is bestowed biennially in recognition of significant contributions in interracial relationships.

  6. Dr. Alexa Irene Canady was the first woman and the first African-American to become a neurosurgeon in the U.S.  Dr Canady specialized as a pediatric neurosurgeon and served as chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital in Michigan from 1987 -2001.  Her areas of expertise included spinal abnormalities, congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus and also trauma and brain tumors.

  7. Dr. Charles Drew was a pioneer researcher in blood plasma for transfusion and in the development of blood banks. He was the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, a professor at Howard University and chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital.

  8. Dr. William Agustus Hinton was the first African-American physician to publish a textbook, “Syphilis and Its Treatment” in 1936. He is known internationally for the development of a flocculation method for the detection of syphilis called the "Hinton Test." Dr. Hinton is also the first African American to hold a professorship at Harvard University.

  9. Dr. Austin Maurice Curtis, Sr was a prominent turn-of-the-century physician and protégé of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. He was a professor of surgery at Howard University for 25 years and chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital from 1898 to 1938. He was the first African-American surgeon on staff of Cook County Hospital, a non-segregated hospital, in 1896.

  10. Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell founded Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Philadelphia in 1895. He was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1882. And Dr. Mossell was also the first African- American admitted to the Philadelphia Medical Society.  He was the uncle of Paul Robeson, a famous African actor and civil rights activist.

  11. Dr. George Cleveland Hall was a pioneer in surgery and chairman of the Medical Advisory Board at Provident Hospital. He was appointed Chief of Staff at the hospital in 1926 and a leading African- American physician in Chicago from 1900 to 1930. Dr. Hall was instrumental in the establishment of infirmaries throughout the south. He organized the first postgraduate course at Provident Hospital and founded Cook County Physicians' Association of Chicago. He was also Vice President of National Urban League and instrumental in getting it started in Chicago

  12. Dr. David Satcher  the16th Surgeon General of the United States was sworn in Feb. 13, 1998. Dr. Satcher was director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from Nov. 15, 1993, until being sworn in as Surgeon General. While at the CDC, he increased childhood immunization rates from 55% in 1992 to 78% in 1996. He was also elected in 1986 to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences

  13. Dr. Charles Dewitt Watts was the first African American to be certified by a surgical specialty board in North Carolina. He played a key role in founding of Lincoln Community Health Center, a free standing clinic, which served people regardless of their ability to pay.

  14. Dr. Ben Carson was director (at age 32) of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  A 70-member surgical team, led by Dr. Carson in 1987, operated for 22 hours to separate conjoined twins (connected at the cranium).  Dr Carson is a Graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan, School of Medicine. He also ran unsuccessfully for president during this last election, losing the Republican nomination to President Donald Trump.

  15. Dr. Mae C. Jemson became the first Black female astronaut in NASA history in August 1992. After earning her medical doctorate at Cornell University in 1981, Dr. Jemison went on to research various vaccines in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control.  

  16. Dr. Regina Benjamin was the 18th U.S. Surgeon General, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009. in 1990, Dr. Benjamin established the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, which serves a fishing coastal community on the Gulf Coast whose citizens have often been unable to access appropriate health care due to lack of insurance, financial constraints and/or geographical issues. Benjamin became a recognized leader in her field, and thus was the first African-American woman and the first physician under age 40 to be elected to the American Medical Association's board of trustees in 1995. She followed years later in 2002 with another big achievement, becoming the first African American woman to lead a state-based medical society with her position as president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.

  17. Dr. John Henry Jordan built the first hospital for African Americans in Coweta County and organized a Medical Aid Organization in which he taught his patients about health and hygiene.  Dr. Jordan was also known as an astute surgeon. His skills eventually led white families in the county to seek his aid for medical treatment when he saved the life of a child from a wealthy white family after other white doctors had failed in their efforts. He was also a real estate investor, owner of a sawmill, and part owner of a general store. Dr Jordan used his earnings to purchase land and allowed African American families to rent from him while encouraging them to eventually own the land themselves.

  18. Dr. Earl Randolph Meyers was a physician and surgeon who practiced medicine until the age of 85 and was known among his colleagues as “the father of Black medicine in Fresno.” Dr. Meyers, who died Oct. 1, 2014, at the age of 95, opened his first medical clinic in 1947 on F Street in downtown Fresno. After 10 years as the only African-American physician in the Fresno area, Dr. Meyers began to encourage other African-American doctors to bring their services to Fresno. He built the Fresno-Klette Medical Arts Center, the first medical facility owned by local African Americans, in West Fresno in 1957.

  19. Dr. Vada Watson Somerville became the first African-American woman in California to receive her D.D.S. or Doctor of Dental Surgery in 1918. Dr. Somerville was the only woman and the only African-American in her class. At the state dental examination, she scored among the highest. Dr. Somerville was the second African-American woman to graduate from USC Dentistry and her husband John was the first African American person to graduate from USC dentistry.

  20. Dr. David Jones Peck was the first African American man to graduate from an American medical school. He was born to John C. and Sarah Peck in Carlisle, Pennsylvania around 1826. John Peck was a prominent abolitionist and minister who founded the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Carlisle. Peck was also a barber and wigmaker.

As part of our celebration of the diverse contributions these pioneers have made in our industry, we will be serving dishes to honor Black History Month every Friday at Community Regional Medical Center and Monday at Clovis Community Medical Center.

For all the past, present and future contributions, I am proud to recognize these leaders during Black History Month and would like to simply say: thank you.

By Nancy Idlet-Whittle MSW
Social Worker at Community Regional Medical Center