Celebrating Black History Month (2024)

The History of Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson developed the idea for Negro History Week to promote the history, culture, and achievements of African Americans and other people of color worldwide. Designed to coincide with Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass' celebratory birthdays, Woodson launched Negro History Week in February of 1926 as a coordinated effort to develop lessons and encourage the teaching of Black history across the nation's communities and public schools.

Woodson, the son of former slaves who became the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, recognized the importance of establishing an initiative that could be celebrated annually and on a national scale. Though the first Negro History Week found little cooperation and tiny audiences among school administrations and community organizers, Woodson recognized the initial efforts of Negro History Week as "fortunate steps" that established and powerfully proclaimed the importance of African American history in our nation's segregated public.

Following those initial years, Negro History Week gradually gained national support as public intellectuals, church, and civic organizations, the Black press, politicians, and historians alike continued to promote and celebrate the initiative. And by the 1960s, as the national discourse on race and identity continued to evolve, so did the design and parameters of Negro History Week as the initiative formally changed into what would become Black History Month by 1976 to more fully represent the scope and experience of Black history, life, and culture.

Our focus on Black History Month centers on the importance of Black Health and Wellness. Part of the theme acknowledges the history and legacies of medical practitioners from birth workers, doctors, scholars, midwives, and doulas over generations from across the Black diaspora. This year’s theme also explores the importance of public and community health initiatives that focus on exercise, nutrition, mental health, and augmenting access to preventative care within Black communities across the country. With its focus on improving the care and health of African Americans, this year’s theme speaks to Woodson’s larger goals of strengthening the communities and improving the daily lives of African Americans.Source National Museum of African American History Center

Celebrating Black History Month (1)

Pacemakers, blood transfusions, neurosurgery on conjoined twins, open heart surgery — these are just a few of the areas in which Black medical experts have advanced the healthcare you know today.

The healthcare contributions made by Black physicians, researchers, and other medical professionals are vast. Even in a country where healthcare is stained with racial injustices — such as unequal access, segregation , and a history of deeply unethical testing — we owe immense gratitude to these innovators who have helped advance medical knowledge and save countless lives.

Still, despite their integral role in medicine, the number of Black physicians is not proportionate to the American population.

While there is much progress to be made in terms of representation in medicine, we greatly benefit from the knowledge, dedication, and commitment of Black medical experts — both those in history and those practicing today.

February isBlack History Month, a month to pay tribute to the many generations of Black Americans who have not only faced adversity, but also have contributed to society in monumental ways. This year’s theme isBlack Health and Wellness, highlighting how Black Americans have promoted the health of our country — all while navigating ongoing health inequities themselves.

Here are 7 of the many healthcare contributions made by Black medical innovators:

1. James McCune Smith, MD:Paved the Way for Future Black Physicians

Like many spaces in American history, practicing medicine has long been an unequal playing field for Black physicians. Dr. James McCune Smith, however, was determined to right this wrong.

Dr. Smith was a physician, author, and abolitionist. In 1837, he earned his medical degree from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Later, he went to New York, where he paved the way for future Black physicians by becoming the first Black man to practice medicine with a medical degree in the United States.

Using his training in medicine and statistics, Dr. Smith was committed to refuting misconceptions around race, intelligence, and medicine.

2. Charles Drew, MD:Changed Blood Transfusion Storage

Each year, roughly 4.5 million Americans will need a blood transfusion — when whole blood or parts of blood are given to a patient through their bloodstream. However, there are plenty of logistics to consider when it comes to blood transfusions, including how to safely store blood for as long as possible.

Dr. Charles Drew developed new ways to store blood plasma for transfusion. During World War II, he also organized the first large-scale blood bank. He continued his work after the war by designing a blood storage program with the American Red Cross. However, he resigned once officials unjustly began separating the blood of Black donors from white donors.

Dr. Drew eventually became Chief Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. (now Howard University Hospital) and the first Black examiner for the American Board of Surgery.

3. Daniel Hale Williams, MD:Performed One of the First Open Heart Surgeries — And Founded the First Black-Owned Hospital

Openheart surgery— which involves connecting you to a machine that does the work of the heart and lung while the heart is stopped for surgery — is a complex but life-saving procedure.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was one of the first physicians to perform this surgery successfully, paving the way for countless future surgeons. In 1891, he opened Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first Black-owned hospital and first non-segregated hospital in the US. He was also the first Black member of the American College of Surgeons.

4. Otis Boykin:Improved the Pacemaker

Thepacemaker— a small, battery-powered device that detects when your heartbeat is irregular or too slow — is a life-saving device that up to 3 million Americans rely on to stay healthy.

Otis Boykin, who was born in 1920, was an avid inventor. One of his inventions was a control unit that improved the pacemaker. Throughout his career, Mr. Boykin patented nearly 30 electronic devices.

5. Ben Carson, MD:Performed the First Successful Separation of Conjoined Twins Joined at the Back of the Head

The separation of conjoined twins (twins whose bodies are connected to each other) is a complicated surgical procedure that requires careful planning and plenty of expertise. When twins were attached at the back of the head, Dr. Carson was up to the challenge.

After becoming one of the youngest physicians to direct Johns Hopkins University Pediatric Neurosurgery, Dr. Carson performed the first successful separation of twins attached at the back of the head in 1987.

6. Miles Vandarhurst Lynk, MD:Co-Founded the First Professional Organization for Black Physicians

In 1891, Dr. Miles Vandarhurst Lynk began breaking barriers by becoming the first Black physician in Jackson, Tennessee. Not long after, he founded the first medical journal published by a Black physician, calledThe Medical and Surgical Observer.

Possibly one of Dr. Lynk’s most notable achievements was co-founding theNational Medical Association for African American Physiciansin 1985. The NMA is the oldest and largest organization representing Black healthcare professionals in the United States.

7. Kizzmekia S. Corbett , PhD:Was One of the Leading Scientists to Develop the Moderna COVID- 19 Vaccine

From the appearance of the first symptoms of what is now known as COVID-19 in December 2019 to the first human trial of the COVID-19 vaccine just months later in March 2020, theCOVID-19 vaccinewas the fastest development of a vaccine to date.

Thanks to increased funding, unprecedented collaboration, thousands of volunteers, advancements in science and countless hardworking medical experts, COVID-19 became much less of a threat than prior to availability of the vaccine.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett played an integral role in all of this. Since 2014, Dr. Corbett has worked with theVaccine Research Center (VCR)to develop novel coronavirus vaccines. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her team’s work became key to developing the vaccine in record time. Dr. Corbett is also working on a universal influenza vaccine.

Celebrating Black Medical Innovators During Black History Month — And Every Month

Some of the most impressive and notable advancements in medicine have been made by Black physicians, scientists, inventors, and researchers. While our list barely scratches the surface, all of these contributions have made and continue to make healthcare what it is today.

ThisBlack History Month— and every month — we celebrate and honor Black medical innovators, who all play an essential role in caring for the well-being of our community and our nation.Source: Penn Medicine

Celebrating Black History Month (2024)

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