16 African American Public Health Heroes You Need To Know

February 27, 2020
Black History Month

16 African American Public Health Heroes You Need To Know

As Black History Month comes to a close, it is important to reflect on the many achievements made by African Americans in the past, as well as how we can all play a role in improving the lives of the African American community now and in the future. Today we celebrate these 16 African American public health heroes and the considerable impact they have had on public health and medicine.

  1. W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868- 1963- A famous historian, sociologist, and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois also made huge impacts on the field of public health! Through his ethnographic research featured in The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois and his work paved the way for highlighting the importance of the social and health consequences of racism and discrimination against African Americans.

  2. Adah Belle Samuels Thoms, 1870- 1943- Adah Belle Samuels Thoms was a devoted nurse who co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and fought for equal employment opportunities for African Americans in the American Red Cross and U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Thoms was also one of the first nurses to be inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame for her work with civil rights and Black feminist activism. 

  3. Ionia Rollin Whipper, 1872- 1953- As a physician and public health reformer, Ionia Rollin Whipper was one of the few African American obstetricians in Washington, D.C. in the early 1900s. After discovering some of the shockingly unsanitary conditions in which young impoverished mothers were forced to live, Whipper traveled throughout the South during the first World War to educate African American mothers and midwives about public health and hygiene. Whipper devoted most of her career to either teaching or founding organizations to improve the lives of low-income Black women in Washington.

  4. Roscoe Conkling Brown Sr., 1884-1963- Roscoe Conkling Brown Sr. was a dentist and public health pioneer who served in various national organizations specializing in African American health. Brown joined the United States Public Health Service and helped direct the establishment of the Office of Negro Health Work. Brown also became a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s informal “Black Cabinet” to represent the specific needs of African Americans during the New Deal. Brown helped the Office of Negro Health Work coordinate a Negro Health Week, develop educational materials, and publish a quarterly journal on issues that specifically concern the Black community.

  5. Numa Pompilius Garfield Adams, 1885- 1940- Numa Pompilius Garfield Adams was an American physician and medical educator in the early 20th century. Adams eventually became the first African American dean of an approved medical school in the United States -- Howard University. During his tenure as dean, Adams worked to improve the reputation of Howard Medical School, and he also oversaw the integration of the Freedmen’s Hospital with Howard University in 1940.

  6. May Edward Chinn, 1896- 1980- As a renowned medical researcher for cancer detection, May Edward Chinn developed a protocol for cancer probability predictions using family medical history. She was also the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College, which is now the NYU School of Medicine, as well as the first American American woman to intern at Harlem Hospital and to be granted hospital privileges. 

  7. Virginia Margaret Alexander, 1899- 1949- Virginia Margaret Alexander was a physician and public health researcher who used her desire to elevate the African American community through improved health conditions to found the Aspiranto Health Home in 1931. The Aspiranto Health Home provided “socialized” health services to low-income African Americans in Philadelphia, often free of cost. Alexander dedicated her life to improving medical care for African American women, children, and families, many of whom otherwise would have been neglected. 

  8. Charles R. Drew, 1904-1950- Most notable for his pioneering work with all things related to blood, Charles R. Drew was a surgeon and medical researcher that studied blood, blood transfusions, and blood banking. He also developed a method to preserve blood plasma for transfusions that saved countless lives during the second World War due to the development of large scale blood banks. Drew was the director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank, and he also protested against racial segregation in the donation of blood.

  9. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, 1912- 2006- Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was an inventor who holds more patents than any other Black woman in history. She is best known for being the inventor of the sanitary pad for menstruation. However, due to racism and sexism, it took 30 years for her invention to be developed and manufactured for mainstream markets.

  10. Joycelyn Elders, b. 1933- Physician and public health official Joycelyn Elders was the first African American to be appointed as the Surgeon General of the United States in 1993. Before her tenure as Surgeon General, Elders worked to reduce the prevalence of teenage pregnancy by promoting birth control, counseling, and sex education at school-based clinics. She also worked on projects to increase child immunization and screening rates, availability of HIV services, breast cancer screenings, and care for elderly patients. 

  11. Patricia Bath, 1942- 2019- Patricia Bath was an opthamologist and innovator who was born and raised in Harlem, New York. Bath was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first African American woman doctor to receive a medical patent. She was also an early pioneer of laser cataract surgery and the field of telemedicine. Bath also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness

  12. Faye Wattleton, b. 1943- As an American abortion rights activist with a background in nursing and midwifery, Faye Wattleton went on to become president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1978. Wattlenton was the first African American and the youngest president in the organization’s history. Under Wattleton’s leadership, an extensive grassroots advocacy network was developed that became a powerful lobbying force to protect women’s rights relating to reproductive choice. 

  13. Nancy Boyd-Franklin, b. 1950- Nancy Boyd-Franklin is a renowned psychologist and writer. Boyd-Franklin specializes in issues that affect Black families and communities, and she has been instrumental in creating new therapeutic approaches that address the mental health of Black Americans that also expand treatment options for this community. Her experience in the field led her to the conclusion that therapeutic treatment options for Black families needed to be socially, culturally, and economically sensitive. 

  14. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, b. 1954- Physician and innovator Deborah Prothrow-Stith pioneered the idea that violence should be seen as a public health problem and a social “disease” rather than a criminal justice problem, as well as the idea that violence needs a preventative approach. Prothrow-Stith is also the current dean at the Charles R. Drew University College of Medicine in Los Angeles, and she was the first woman and youngest Commissioner of Public Health in Massachusetts. 

  15. Mae Jemison, b. 1956- Mae Jemison is an engineer and former NASA astronaut, as well as the first Black woman to travel to space. She is also a trained physician who has contributed greatly to global health and development! Jemison served in the Peace Corps as a medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and she founded The Jemison Group, Inc., which developed a telecommunications system to improve healthcare delivery in developing countries around the world. 

  16. Sherman A. James- Sherman A. James is the current Susan B. King Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He is also a distinguished epidemiologist and researcher that studies the social determinants of health concerning racism and discrimination. He is best known for his hypothesis known as “John Henryism.” This hypothesis attributes premature deaths of African Americans related to hypertension and cardiovascular disease to prolonged exposure to stress from discrimination and racism.