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Week 4: Black History Month Celebration

It's the fourth and final week of Black History Month, which also means it's our final week of celebrating Black American medical innovators in United States history. I must say that it's been a treat learning about the brilliance and incredible impact that Black Americans have made on the industry.

I appreciate you for reading each week and for sharing your thoughts as well!

We wrap up our celebration with the stories of Eliza Ann Grier, James McCune Smith, Daniel Hale Williams, Roselyn Payne Epps and Jane Cooke Wright.


Eliza Ann Grier, M.D. - Dr. Eliza Ann Grier was born enslaved in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina in 1864, but along with her parents, Emily and George Washington Grier, she was freed by the 13th Amendment to the US. Constitution in 1865. In 1883, nearly 20 years after her emancipation, Grier entered Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee with the goal of becoming a teacher. She earned a degree in education from Fisk eight years later in 1891 because she took every other year off to pick cotton and perform other work to pay her tuition.

Shortly before graduating from Fisk, Grier realized that she wanted to become a medical doctor as she could benefit her race more as a physician than as a teacher. "When I saw colored women doing all the work in cases of accouchement [childbirth]," she was quoted as saying, "and all the fee going to some white doctor who merely looked on, I asked myself why should I not get the fee myself." To pay for her medical education, she once again alternated every year of her studies with a year of picking cotton. It took her seven years to graduate.

In 1897, after graduating from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Dr. Eliza Grier returned to Atlanta, Georgia. In 1898, she became the first Black American woman licensed to practice medicine in the state of Georgia.

In 1901, Grier moved to Albany, Georgia partly because her brother, Dr. Richard Edgar Grier, also practiced medicine there. Tragically, after struggling for eight years to become a physician, Dr. Eliza Ann Grier died in 1902 at the age of 38 after only five years of medical practice.

Daniel Hale Willams, M.D. - Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, III was born on January 18, 1856, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania to Sarah Price Williams and Daniel Hale Williams, II. Around the age of 10, Williams' father died of tuberculosis, and the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland to live with relatives. Williams became a shoemaker’s apprentice but disliked the work, so he decided to pursue his education.

Williams graduated with an M.D. degree in 1883 at Chicago Medical College. He practiced medicine in Chicago at a time when there were only three other black physicians in the state. Considered a thoughtful and skilled surgeon, Dr. Williams' practice grew as he treated both black and white patients. In 1889, he was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health and worked with medical standards and hospital rules. Since racism and discrimination prohibited Black Americans from being admitted to hospitals and denied black doctors employment on hospital staff, Dr. Williams founded the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurse. It emerged as the first hospital in the country with a nursing and intern program that hired Black Americans. The hospital also had the distinction of being the first medical facility to have an interracial staff.

One hot summer night in 1893, a young Chicagoan named James Cornish was stabbed in the chest and rushed to Provident. When Cornish started to go into shock, Dr. Williams suspected a deeper wound near the heart. With the heart beating and transfusion impossible, Dr. Williams rinsed the wound with salt solution, held the edges of the palpitating wound with forceps, and sewed them together. In doing this, Dr. Williams became the first surgeon to performed open-heart surgery on a human. Just 51 days after his apparently lethal wound, James Cornish walked out of the hospital. He lived for over 20 years after the surgery.

In 1894, Dr. Williams became first Black chief surgeon of Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C., the most prestigious medical post available to Black Americans at the time. There, he made improvements that reduced the hospital's mortality rate. In 1895, he helped to organize the National Medical Association for black professionals, who were barred from the American Medical Association. In 1913, Dr. Williams became the first Black American to be inducted into the American College of Surgeons.

Roselyn Payne Epps, M.D. - Dr. Roselyn Epps was born December 11, 1930 in Little Rock, Arkansas but grew up in Savannah, Georgia. Both of her parents were educators, as were her grandparents. She attended Howard University in Washington D.C. where she majored in zoology and chemistry. Epps graduated cum laude with a B.S. in 1951. She continued her medical education there, earning an M.S. with honors in 1955.

Upon receiving her M.S., Dr. Epps became a rotating intern with the United States Public Health Service at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington. In 1956, she began a pediatric residency with the hospital. Only two years later, Dr. Epps became its chief resident. After completing her internship and residency, Dr. Epps spent ten years at the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health at the D. C. Department of Public Health, from 1961 to 1971, and in 1973 earned her master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. She was chief of the Bureau of Hospitals at the D.C. Department of Human Resources from 1971 to 1975, then chief of the Bureau of Clinical Services. In 1980, Dr. Epps was made acting commissioner of public health.

Dr. Epps spent her life and career as an advocate for women, minorities, and the underserved. Combining her skills as doctor and administrator, she was recognized for her foresight and leadership in medicine, pediatrics, maternal and child health, women's health, and public health. In 1988, Dr. Epps became the first woman and the first Black American to become president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Washington D.C. chapter. Three years later, she was elected as the first Black American president of the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA). A year after that, in 1992, Dr. Epps made history as the first Black American woman to become president of the Medical Society of the Washington D.C. area.

James McCune Smith, M.D. - Dr. James Smith was born into slavery in 1813 in New York City and was set freed on July 4, 1827, at age 14, by the Emancipation Act of New York. His mother was an enslaved woman named Lavinia who achieved her freedom later in 1855. She described her as a "self-emancipated woman." Dr. Smith's father was Samuel Smith, a white merchant and his mother's owner, who had brought her with him to New York from South Carolina.

Dr. Smith attended the African Free School (AFS) #2 in Manhattan. After graduating, he applied to both Columbia University and Geneva Medical College in New York State, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination. His mentor encouraged him to attend the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Abolitionist benefactors of the AFS provided Smith with money for his trip overseas and his education. He obtained a bachelor's degree in 1835, a master's degree in 1836, and a medical degree in 1837. After graduating, he returned to New York as the first Black American to hold a medical degree.

Dr. Smith opened his own practice and pharmacy, noted to be the first Black American owned and operated pharmacy in America, where he treated both black and white patients. He would eventually own two pharmacies and would continue to practice medicine for 25 years. Dr. Smith contributed articles to medical journals, participated in learned societies, and wrote numerous essays and articles drawing from his medical and statistical training. In 1837, Dr. Smith became the first Black physician to publish articles in US medical journals. Smith was broadly involved in the anti-slavery and suffrage movements, contributing to and editing abolitionist newspapers and serving as an officer of many organizations for the improvement of social conditions in the black community. In his scientific writings Smith debunked the racial theories in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, refuted phrenology and homeopathy, and responded with a forceful statistical critique to the racially biased US Census of 1840.

Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and John Brown personally collaborated with James McCune Smith in the fight for black freedom. Frederick Douglass cited Dr. Smith as the single most important influence on his life. As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Dr. Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful. Dr. Smith was never granted admittance into the American Medical Association.

Jane Cooke Wright, M.D. - Dr. Jane Wright was born in New York City in 1919 to Corinne Cooke, a public school teacher, and Louis Tompkins Wright. Her father was one of the first Black American graduates from Harvard Medical School and New York's first Black American police surgeon.

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright earned a full scholarship to study medicine at New York Medical College, and she graduated as a part of an accelerated three-year program at the top of her class in 1945. After medical school, she did residencies at Bellevue Hospital (1945–46) and Harlem Hospital (1947–48), completing her tenure at Harlem Hospital as chief resident. In 1949, she joined her father in research at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center, which he had founded. She and her father began working to make chemotherapy more accessible for everyone. At the time, chemotherapy was considered the “last resort” and the drugs available and dosage was not very well defined.

In 1951, Dr. Jane Wright and her team identified the use of methotrexate, one of the foundational chemotherapy drugs, as an effective tool against cancerous tumors. Dr. Wright's early work brought chemotherapy out of the realm of an untested, experimental hypothetical treatment, into the realm of tested, proven effective cancer therapeutics—thus literally saving millions of lives.

In 1952, following Dr. Louis Wright's death, Dr. Jane Wright was appointed head of the Cancer Research Foundation, at the age of 33. In 1955, Dr. Wright became an associate professor of surgical research at New York University and director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center and its affiliated Bellevue and University hospitals. In addition to research and clinical work, Wright was professionally active. In 1964, she was the only woman among seven physicians who helped to found the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In 1967, Wright was appointed associate dean and head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department at New York Medical College, which made her the highest ranked Black American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. In 1971, she became the first woman and first Black woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke.

After a long and fruitful career of cancer research, Dr. Wright retired in 1987. During her forty-year career, Dr. Wright published many research papers on cancer chemotherapy and led delegations of cancer researchers to Africa, China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union.

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