The purpose of African American History Month is to bring the unique and valuable contributions of Black Americans to the forefront. The following five trailblazing doctors each over came challenging obstacles to develop themselves and offer priceless benefits to their fellow Americans. Read on to learn about the special contributions of each as we aim to amplify and elevate their legacies.

“If we were to unite in the pursuit of any one object, I can imagine no possibility beyond our power to compass.”

Dr. James McCune Smith

Born into slavery, James McCune Smith (1813–1865) overcame overwheling odds to pursue his passion for medicine, eventually becoming the first African American to receive a medical degree and have his own medical practice in the United States. Denied admittance to medical school in the U.S.—due to his race—McCune Smith attended medical school in Scotland and returned to start his own practice in New York City in 1837, where he treated both black and white patients. McCune Smith also mastered Greek, Latin and French and was the chief medical director at the New York City Colored Orphan Asylum. While not practicing medicine, McCune Smith worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery in the South. He died 3 weeks before the ratification of the 13th ammenment to the constitution abolishing slavery. 

“There is no scientific basis for the separation of the bloods of different races except on the basis of the individual blood types or groups.”

Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Charles Drew’s (1904–1950) work revolutionized blood preservation, helping to save the lives of thousands of soldiers during World War II. As part of his research Drew discovered a way to separate, store and later reconstitute blood plasma, making life saving transfusions possible for many. As the director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank he also oversaw the collection of 14,500 pints of plasma to help the British army and recruited 100,000 blood donors for the U.S. Army and Navy. Drew later resigned his post because of racial discrimination in blood collection and distribution. He finished his career as the head of Howard University’s Department of Surgery and chief surgeon at Freedman’s Hospital.

“I know I’m a member of two minority groups, but I don’t think of myself that way.”

Jane Cooke Wright

Jane Cooke Wright (1919–2013) was a pioneering female African American physician who helped transform chemotherapy from an experimental to a mainstream cancer treatment. While working alongside her father Dr. Louis Wright, Wright helped to develop treatments that led to remission for many leukemia and lymphoma patients. She also created an innovative technique to test the effect of drugs on cancer cells using patient tissue instead of laboratory mice. In 1971, Dr. Jane Wright became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. Later in her career at New York Medical College, she implemented a new comprehensive program to study stroke, heart disease, and cancer, and created another program to instruct doctors in chemotherapy. 

Health is more than absence of disease; it is about economics, education, environment, empowerment and community.”

Jocelyn Elders

Born Minnie Jones, Jocelyn Elders (b. 1933) grew up the eldest of 8 children in a segregated, poor part of Arkansas. She began working in the cotton fields at age 5 and often had to miss months of school during harvest time. Still, Elders excelled academically and went on to get her medical degree from the University of Arkansas and to change her first name to Jocelyn. She has had a career of firsts—including being the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology and the first African American to head the U.S. Public Health Service. Elders was also the first woman and African American to serve as the U.S. surgeon general. She distinguished herself by being one of the first senior level government officials to openly discuss controversial topics such as drug legalization, in-school distribution of contraception, and healthy human sexuality.

“Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination.”

Dr Patricia Bath

A true innovator, Dr. Patricia Bath (1942–2019) was the first African-American to achieve a residency in ophthalmology, the study and treatment of eye disorders. Believing that eye sight is a basic human right, she went on to become the first female faculty member in the UCLA department of ophthalmology. Additionally, Bath was the first African American woman to gain a medical patent for her invention of the Laserphaco Probe. This cataract treatment device was a trailblazing invention that restored vision to people who had gone decades without sight. When she patented the device in 1988, she became the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention.