Week 3: Black American Medical Innovators

We continue our celebration of Black History Month by honoring five more Black medical innovators. For our third week, we highlight the achievements of Kenneth Frazier, Dr. Solomon Fuller, Dr. Marilyn Gaston, Dr. William Hinton and Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey.



Kenneth C. Frazier, J.D. - Pharmaceutical executive, lawyer, and corporate general counsel Kenneth C. Frazier was born on December 17, 1954 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to janitor and former sharecropper Otis Tindley Frazier and homemaker Clara Elizabeth Frazier. Frazier graduated from Northeast High School in Philadelphia before attending Pennsylvania State University. Upon completing his B.A. degree in 1975 with highest honors, Frazier enrolled at Harvard Law School, receiving his J.D. degree in 1978.


For the next fourteen years, Frazier worked as a lawyer and, eventually, partner at the Philadelphia law firm of Drinker, Biddle, & Reath. There he represented many corporate clients, but the case which brought Frazier the most praise during this time was the pro bono work he contributed to freeing the innocent Willie “Bo” Cochran after twenty-one years on death row. In 2007, Frazier accepted the role of president of Merck & Co., Inc, and was given the additional roles of CEO and chairman in 2011, making him the first African American to serve as CEO of a major pharmaceutical company.



Solomon Carter Fuller, M.D. - Dr. Solomon Fuller born on August 11, 1872 in Monrovia, Libera. His parents, Solomon C. and Anna Ursilla (James) Fuller, were Americo-Liberians. Solomon’s grandfather was a Virginia slave who bought his and his wife’s freedom then moved to Norfolk, Virginia. The grandfather emigrated to Liberia in 1852 to help establish a settlement of Black Americans.


Dr. Fuller is widely acknowledged as the first African‐American psychiatrist but underappreciated as a pioneer of Alzheimer's disease. He immigrated to the United States from Liberia at age 17 and excelled in his medical career to become associate professor of both pathology and neurology at Boston University by 1921. He was one of five research assistants selected by Alois Alzheimer to work in his laboratory at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital in Munich, an experience that arguably paved the way for trailblazing research in Alzheimer's disease.


Dr. Fuller was the first to translate much of Alzheimer's pivotal work into English, including that of Auguste Deter, the first reported case of the disease. He published what is now recognized to be the first comprehensive review of Alzheimer's disease, in it reporting the ninth case ever described. His achievements, in a period when Black American physicians were under‐represented, merit greater recognition.




Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D. - Dr. Marilyn Gaston was born in 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father worked as a waiter while her mother was a medical secretary. By the time she was 9 years old, Gaston knew she wanted to become a doctor, but because she was Black and from a poor family, she was discouraged from pursuing her dream.


She studied zoology at Miami University, and when she graduated in 1960, she enrolled at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, encouraged by a physician she worked for. When she began medical school, she was one of only six women, and the only Black American woman in her year. She faced poverty and prejudice as a young student, but was determined to become a physician.


Dr. Gaston dedicated her career to medical care for poor and minority families, and campaigns for health care equality for all Americans. Her 1986 study of sickle-cell disease led to a nationwide screening program to test newborns for immediate treatment. In 1990, Dr. Gaston went on to become director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the first Black American woman to direct a public health service bureau, where she focused on improving health care services for poor and underserved families.



William Augustus Hinton, M.D. - Dr. William Hinton was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1883 to former slaves. After high school, he studied at the University of Kansas before transferring to Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in 1905. After teaching for several years, he entered Harvard Medical School, competing for and winning prestigious scholarships.


In 1912, Hinton earned his MD with honors, but because of racial prejudice he was barred from pursuing a career in surgery at Boston-area hospitals. Not easily deterred, Dr. Hinton instead took a job teaching serological techniques at what was then Harvard’s Wassermann Laboratory, also working part-time as a volunteer assistant in the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital. His task: to perform autopsies on all persons suspected of having died from syphilis.


Dr. Hinton became an expert on the disease and created a new blood test for diagnosing syphilis that was adopted by the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1949, more than 30 years after joining the faculty and only a year before he retired, Dr. Hinton became the first Black American to be promoted to the rank of professor at Harvard Medical School and at Harvard University.




Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA - Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey was born in Seattle, Washington in 1954. Her mother, the first Black American female pediatrician in Washington, and her father, a general surgeon, were dedicated to providing health care for all, and made clear the connection between health and well-being and social and economic factors.


Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey earned her M.D. at Harvard Medical School and completed her internship and residency at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. In 1984, she was named a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, and received her master of business administration degree in health care administration from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in 1986.


In 1998, as chief of geriatric medicine and director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey made house calls as part of a model team program to care for elders in Philadelphia. In 2002, she was named president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a large private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care for Americans, where she had served as senior vice president and director for the Health Care Group. She was the first woman and first Black American to hold this position.


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