Paving the way: A Brief History of Black Pioneers in Medicine

An oldie but a goodie: this post was originally published on February 18th, 2016.

Pursuing a career in medicine can be a challenging experience for anyone. For many aspiring Black doctors, these challenges were often associated with discrimination and a lack of opportunities to prove their worth, particularly in the early 19th and 20th centuries. Many barriers had to be torn down and doors opened before access to a quality medical education could be achieved for people of color. To celebrate Black History Month, we’re sharing with you a brief history of how these opportunities were built.

Meharry Medical College Marker - Back

Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was more likely that a black person seeking a career as a physician had received their education at a medical school in Canada or Europe than here in the United States. There were very few institutions at this time that would admit black students, even if these students were highly skilled and qualified for admission. Black colleges like Howard University  and Meharry had medical colleges established in 1868 and 1876, which were good options for students, though both programs had mostly white physicians in charge. Black medical students who were able to graduate with a degree often faced difficulty furthering their studies in more specialized fields, as well as difficulty being placed and being granted privileges in hospitals. Even as time marched on and black students were able to gain entry into primarily white medical schools and hospitals, the racism and prejudice they experienced continued to be a trial.

As a response to the times and troubles, as more black medical students became physicians, they started to form their own medical institutions, including teaching hospitals, organizations, and societies to be able to provide their communities with opportunity. The first ever black owned and operated hospital was founded in Chicago, and was called the Provident Hospital and Training School. It was established in 1891, and encouraged the creation of other similar institutions that could provide education and training to young black physicians and nurses.  Through the efforts of the physicians who created them, many more blacks students were given opportunities to receive the medical training they needed, while many black patients were also able to receive the care and services they needed. Many of these hospitals still exist in some way today, having been renamed or merged  with other institutions.

Black physicians even formed the National Medical Association in 1895, due to the fact that the American Medical Association did not include physicians of color. This group still addresses the needs of black physicians in the US today. Other groups include the Society of Black American Surgeons, which was founded in 1989, years after most situations had greatly improved. This group supports black surgeons and their careers, and provides opportunities to address issues being faced by these professionals.

Many black physicians were able to make great strides despite the early hardships faced by their predecessors. In 1901, Dr. Matilda Evans founded the Taylor Lane Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, and became the first black woman physician licensed to practice there, where she treated both black and white patients.  Dr. Charles R. Drew, a surgeon and pioneer in the preservation of blood, led the department of surgery at Howard University College of Medicine to experience enormous growth during his time as chair, and is still considered to be an inspirational educator. Still more have made excellent contributions to their fields, paving the way for today’s black students to create their own successes.

Dr. Matilda Evans

Dr. Charles R. Drew









To learn more history of the journey this country took to accepting black practitioners of medicine, you can check out the National Library of Medicine’s exhibit on the topic, as well as other resources included below.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.