From a blood bank pioneer and Surgeon General to the inventor of a groundbreaking laser tool to correct cataracts

Black History Month is here, but these six pioneers in research and medicine are worth checking out any time of year. Some are the first in their field, some are simply the best, but all have been honored for their dedication to their patients and their chosen fields.

Daniel Hale Williams, Surgeon, 1856-1931

Dr. Williams is most known for performing possibly the first open-heart surgery in the United States in 1893. The surgery involved suturing a wound in a stabbing victim’s pericardium, and the procedure was successful. The patient lived for more than twenty years post-surgery.

Dr. Williams enrolled at Chicago Medical College in 1880; completing his degree in three years. He was an early adopter of advanced sterilization procedures and an advocate for high sanitation standards as a professor at Chicago Medical.

In order to circumvent discriminatory practices in hospitals against black physicians, Dr. Williams co-founded Provident Hospital in 1891 on the south side of Chicago. The hospital hired an interracial staff and started the first training facility for black nurses in the US. The hospital boasted an 87% patient recovery rate; one of the highest in the country at the time. The hospital remained open until 1987, and was reopened as a public hospital in 1993.

Ernest Everett Just, Biologist, 1883-1941

Dr. Just worked at a critical juncture for developmental biology and was noted in his time for his ability to ensure the healthy development of marine invertebrate embryos. He literally wrote the book on proper laboratory handling of these embryos – Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals – in 1939.

Dr. Just graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1907 and became a full professor at Howard University by 1912. He was the chair of Howard’s zoology department, and he helped establish the university’s master’s program for zoology.

Dr. Just’s research contributions include the effects of environment on embryo development, observations on egg surface changes during fertilization, and early work on experimental parthenogenesis, or the asexual reproduction of cells. He published more than 70 articles during his career, including many in Germany. He was living in France in 1940 when his town was invaded by Nazis, necessitating his move back to the US. He died of pancreatic cancer the following year, just after his 58th birthday.

Charles Richard Drew, Surgeon, 1904-1950

Dr. Drew is known today as the father of blood banking. After studying at Amherst College and McGill University, and after working as a professor at Howard University, Dr. Gill won a Rockefeller Fellowship to study at Columbia University. It was there that he discovered that blood plasma separated from whole blood can be stored for much longer, and with a lower risk of contamination.

During World War II the need for safe blood plasma transfusions skyrocketed. Wounded soldiers were desperately in need of the fluid volume and clotting factors that come from plasma, which can be administered without regard to blood type. Dr. Drew was asked to lead the “Blood for Britain” effort, and later he helped develop blood banks for the American Red Cross. However, the military’s decision to segregate the blood of black and white soldiers caused Dr. Drew to resign in protest.

Drew’s dissertation, “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation,” earned him the first ever doctoral degree for a black person from Columbia. He was also the first black examiner for the American Board of Surgery. During his tenure as chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital, he stated that his greatest contribution to medicine would be training young black physicians and fighting to get black doctors into positions of authority across the country.

David Satcher, Physician, 1941-

Dr. Satcher was born and raised in rural Alabama, and was the first black person to earn and MD-PhD from Case Western Reserve University. After graduation he moved to Los Angeles, opening a free clinic in a church basement. He subsequently worked in Nashville, Cleveland, and New York City, always making it a priority to treat underserved patients. 

After working as Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1993-1998, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be Surgeon General. He was confirmed in 1998, and was also appointed assistant secretary for health in the Department for Health and Human services.

In his time as Surgeon General, Dr. Satcher’s platforms included equalizing access to health services for minorities, fighting tobacco use, and identifying obesity and suicide as national health crises. After his tenure as Surgeon General, Dr. Satcher returned to his undergraduate college to work as the director of the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine, and later served as that medical school’s president.

Patricia Bath, Ophthalmologist, 1942-

Dr. Bath is probably best known as the inventor of the laserphaco probe, a laser-based surgical tool for treating cataracts. After graduating from Howard University College of Medicine in 1968, she moved to New York City to intern at Harlem Hospital and Columbia University. During her internship she observed that black patients in Harlem were twice as likely to have some form of visual impairment compared with mostly white patients at Columbia; an observation she confirmed with a retrospective epidemiological study.

In 1973 she became the first black doctor to complete a residency in ophthalmology, and afterwards she turned her attention to finding better ways to treat cataracts. After a decade at universities in California, she moved to Europe, where she earned a patent for her laserphaco probe in 1988. Her invention was the first medical patent ever granted to a black woman; and her invention is still in use today.

Alexa Canady, Neurosurgeon, 1950-

Dr. Canady has been known as the first black female neurosurgeon in the United States since she completed her residency at the University of Minnesota in 1981. In 1984 she gained another first when she was certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. 

Born in Lansing, Michigan to a dentist and a teacher, Dr. Canady attended the University of Michigan where she started as a mathematics major. She earned her BS in zoology in 1971, but after spending a summer working in Dr. Art Bloom’s genetics lab before her senior year, she had decided to pursue a career in medicine. She graduated from Michigan’s medical school in 1975.

After her initial residency in Minnesota, Dr. Canady switched to pediatric neurosurgery as a fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She became chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in 1987, and worked there until her retirement in 2001.