Oftentimes when we seek medical treatment, we don’t think of how they came into existence. Even more, we don’t know the faces behind the technology. Yet, we do appreciate the advances in medicine that allows us to live longer and have modern solutions to modern problems.
The following nine African Americans, in no specific order, made a significant mark in medicine and healthcare that is worth noting.
Dr. Alexa Canaday: Pioneer in Pediatric Neurosurgery
Dr. Alexa Irene Canaday (November 7th, 1950 – still living) was an African American doctor who’s a pioneer in pediatric neurosurgery (brain and spine surgery for children) with a strong “patient first” approach to her career. She specialized in treating a variety of neurological conditions in children including hydrocephaly (fluid on the brain), tumors, spinal disorders, head trauma and more. Dr. Alexa Canaday enjoys mentoring prospective doctors and continues to inspire children today. She has retired in 2012.
A programmable antisiphon shunt for hydrocephaly (U.S. Patent 6090062)
- First African American to complete a surgical internship at Yale New Haven Hospital.
- First African American woman to finish residency at University of MN.
- 1987 – Became Chief of Neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital Detroit making the department the best in the U.S.
- 1993 – Honored as Woman of The Year by the American Women’s Medical Association
- 1993 – Inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame
Learn more about Dr. Alexa Canaday here.
Clara “Mother” Hale: Humanitarian For Addicted Babies & Children
Clara McBride “Mother” Hale (April 1, 1905 – December 18, 1992) was a humanitarian who founded “Hale House”, which was a safe space of healing for babies and very young children who suffered from drug addictions and HIV/AIDS. Her journey began in 1940s while living in Harlem where she also collaborated with local hospitals to refer the addicted mothers of these children to get treatment. This program resulted in a 90% reunion rate between mother and child. By 1991, she has helped heal over 1,000 babies.
- Honorary Doctorate from John Jay College of Criminal Justice
- Public Service Award from National Mother’s Day Committee
- Truman Award for Public Service
- Was lauded an “American Hero” by President Ronald Regan during the 1985 State of the Union Address.
- Urban League (NY Chapter) gave the “League Building Bricks Award”.
- 1987- Both Community Service Award and Leonard H. Carter Humanitarian Award (Highest Honors from the Salvation Army).
Learn more about Mother Hale here.
Dr. Charles Drew: Pioneer in Blood Plasma Preservation
Dr. Charles Richard Drew (June 3, 1904- April 1,1950) was a doctor who had major impacts on preservation of blood plasma (liquid between blood cells) so that it is viable for transfusions. He created an experimental blood bank as part of his dissertation “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation” research. He helped aid the U.S. in gathering blood for Britain in preparation for World War II. Despite his significant achievements, the Red Cross, at the time, did not allow donation of African American blood, including his.
Blood Plasma Preservation (U.S. Patent No. 2,389,355)
- First African American to receive a doctorate in Medical Science at Columbia University
- 1941 – Passed American Board of Surgery exams
- 1942 – E.S. Jones Award for Research in Medical Science in Tuskegee, AL
- 1943 – A spot on the American-Soviet Committee on Science
- 1944 – Spingarn Medal from NAACP
- 1945 – Honorary Doctorates from Virginia State College
- 1946 – Elected to the International College of Surgeons
Learn more about Dr. Charles Drew here.
Henrietta Lacks: Unaware Contributor to Immortal Cells for Medicine
Henrietta Lacks (August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was not a medical professional or have done work herself in the field, instead, she was an unwilling participant in many studies through the use of her cervical cancer cells after her death. Researchers found that the cells from the tumor (known as the HeLa line) had multiplied at a rapid rate well after her death and thus, have been utilized to create medicines for illnesses such as polio and Parkinson’s. They have also helped in the creation of vaccines worldwide such as HPV and covid-19. All of this was done without her consent or benefit to her family and descendants. It wasn’t until 2013 when her family had a say in how her cells’ genome can be used for further research. In 2023, her family still has not received any financial compensation for her unaware contribution to billions of dollars’ worth of research and science. Requirements for consent prior to medical treatment are attributed to Henrietta Lacks’ story.
Dr. Michael K. Obeng: World Renowned Plastic Surgeon
Dr. Michael K. Obeng is a world-renowned surgeon from Ghana who currently practices in the U.S. He specializes in various reconstructive surgeries from necessary medical needs such as limb reattachments and micro-neurovascular surgery to cosmetic such as issues with aging. He reached major popularity when he found the solution to remove gorilla glue from a woman’s hair, without cutting it all off, when no other medical professionals could help back in 2021. (You can read more about that here.) He is a humanitarian that believes people worldwide should have access to affordable, lifesaving treatments.
- 2018 – Media recognition for forehead reduction surgery
- 2013 – N.A.A.C.P. Humanitarian Award for his services with R.E.S.T.O.R.E.
- Twice rated Top Plastic Surgeon by Consumer Research Council
Dr. Hadiyah Nicole-Green: Pioneer in Potential Cancer-Eliminating Treatment
Dr. Hadiyah Nicole-Green is a pioneer in a potential cancer-killing treatment designed to target the tumors without affecting any surrounding tissue through the use of laser-activated nano-therapy. She has, so far, successfully removed tumors in mice within 15 days with one, 10-minute treatment session. Despite the massive amount of cancer patients willing to be included in the human clinical trials, she cannot move forward unless she gets full funding for the project. Her goal is to make treatments affordable for all.
Photothermal Nanostructures in Tumor Therapy. (US 20130261444A1. PENDING).
- Top 30 under 40 in Healthcare by Business Insider
- First African American woman to receive a degree in Physics.
Research Advocate of the Year Award by the Southern Company and Perennial Strategy Group.
- Key to the City and the Historic Icon Award by the City of Selma, AL.
- Distinguished Trailblazer Award by The National Coalition of 100 Black Women Inc., Metropolitan Atlanta Chapter.
- 100 Most Influential African Americans by Ebony Power 100 by Ebony magazine.
- Trailblazer of the Year Award by the 100 Black Men of America.
- 2016 – Root 100 by The Root magazine.
- 2018 – Breast Cancer Advocate of the Year Award by BET and BETHer.
You can support Dr. Hadiyah Nicole-Green’s work at her Ora Lee Smith Foundation here.
Dr. Solomon Fuller Carter: Neuropsychiatrist Pioneer in Alzheimer’s Research
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller (August 1, 1872 – January 16, 1953) was a pioneer in Alzheimer’s research by way of studying the brain cells of patients with psychiatric disorders after they have passed away. He also studied the blood of living patients. In addition to his work with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative illnesses, he also contributed to the correct diagnoses of syphilis in hopes to prevent misdiagnosis amongst African American veterans.
- First African American Psychiatrist
Learn more about Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller here.
Dr. Patricia Bath: Inventor of Laserphaco Probe for Cataract Surgery
Dr. Patricia Era Bath is most known for her invention of the Laserphaco Probe, a device used to remove cataracts from the eyes using a laser beam. Not only did she invent a way to remove cataracts, but she also had a passion for ensuring that eye health was accessible to underserved communities. Dr. Bath helped to co-founded the American Institution for the Prevention of Blindness in 1983.
An Apparatus for Ablating and Removing Cataract Lenses, Patent No. 4,744,360
- First African American to finish residency in Ophthalmology.
- First woman in the U.S.A. to be the chair of Ophthalmology training residency training program at Drew UCLA.
Learn more about Dr. Patricia Era Bath here.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett: Pioneer in Development of the Covid-19 Vaccine
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, born 1986, is a doctor in microbiology and viral immunology. She is a pioneer in helping to develop a type of spike protein that is able to attach to human cells. This was the basis for the creation of the mRNA vaccine for covid-19. The spike protein will help to create future vaccines for new viruses.
Anti-coronavirus Antibodies and Method of Use (U.S. Patent 11447541)
Prefusion coronavirus spike proteins and their use (U.S. Patent 10960070).
- Hero of the Year by TIME Magazine
- 2021 – Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medal
- 2022 – Woman of the Year (National Honorees) in USA TODAY magazine
This list, in no way, fully covers every African American doctor who has made progress in the field. It is apparent that, through passion and hard work, African Americans have played significant roles in the advancement of medicine in the United States. Through the amazing contributions of these individuals, we can enjoy a better quality of life when we get access to proper medical care.