Five Black Leaders Who Revolutionized Healthcare

To honor Black History Month, Select Health is highlighting five Black leaders who revolutionized healthcare.


To honor Black History Month, Select Health is highlighting five Black leaders who revolutionized healthcare. While the Black community still faces major health disadvantages as a result of racism in the healthcare industry, Black people have been leaders in healthcare innovations for centuries. These are just a few of those figures.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn an M.D. degree. Crumpler grew up with her aunt, who frequently tended to sick friends and neighbors. This sparked Crumpler’s interest in healthcare. She worked as a nurse for several years, then decided to apply for medical school. Women and Black people were frequently discriminated against in education, but that didn’t stop her. After the Civil War ended, she focused on treating freed slaves who otherwise would have had no access to healthcare. She is also famous for her “Book of Medical Discourses,” published in 1883, which is one of the first healthcare publications by an African American.

Vivien Thomas was working as a researcher at Vanderbilt University with Dr. Alfred Blalock in the 1930s. However, administrators were only paying him as a janitor. In spite of this disparity in pay and rank, he continued his research. Making key discoveries and inventing new procedures for hemorrhagic shock and cyanotic heart disease. Although he was often uncredited for his work, he was so skillful that he became the supervisor of the surgical laboratories at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. After 35 years, Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate and named him an instructor of surgery for the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Chidiebere Ibe went viral in 2021 for his drawing of a fetus inside a womb. Not only did the image quickly spread because of its high attention to detail, but it was also novel because the fetus was Black. Ibe, who is a medical student in Nigeria and is also a medical illustrator, created the image because he saw a lack of representation in photos, drawings, and illustrations in textbooks.

The illustration highlights the stark differences in representation in the healthcare world. Because the vast majority of medical illustrations are of white people, physicians may be more likely to dismiss, ignore, or misdiagnose Black people. For example, when most of the illustrations of skin cancer are of white people, dermatologists frequently ignore or misdiagnose Black people who have melanoma, a deadly skin cancer. A study showed that Black people were three times more likely than their white counterparts to die of melanoma. Ibe hopes that his illustrations will bring more diversity and awareness in medical textbooks in order to make healthcare more equitable for people with dark skin.

Phill Wilson is an HIV/AIDS activist who has broken down barriers and stigmas regarding healthcare. After his partner died from an AIDS-related illness, Phill wanted to help people diagnosed with AIDS—especially Black people—access the healthcare they needed and deserved. From 1990 to 1993, he served as the AIDS Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles. Later, he was co-chair of the Los Angeles County HIV Health Commission. He founded the Black AIDS Institute in 1999 and served as its president and CEO until he retired in 2018. During his career, he published research on AIDS and pushed for policy reform in many countries, including Eastern Europe, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. His work has helped bring awareness about AIDS, gather funding for research, build support communities, and create change in the prevention and treatment of the disease.

Mae Jemison is most famous for being an astronaut and being the first Black woman in space. However, she was also a physician. She went to medical school at Cornell and earned her M.D. in 1981. Once she graduated, she joined the Peace Corps and worked as a medical officer in Africa. After a few years, she pivoted to her career as an astronaut. She still maintained her passion for medicine, though. She served on the board of directors of the World Sickle Cell Foundation. She also founded the Jemison Group, a consulting firm that combined her experience in medicine and in satellite communications to improve healthcare delivery to developing countries.

This Black History Month, Select Health encourages you to learn more about Black figures in medicine, and to think more critically about the health disparities faced by the Black community. Together, we can help create a more equitable healthcare experience, ensuring that every one of us, regardless of skin color, can live the healthiest life possible.

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