As Black History Month comes to a close, Sketchy recognizes the significant achievements and contributions Black Americans have made to the practice of medicine. From being pioneers in their field to developing life-saving techniques, these five Black physicians shaped American history and paved the way for a more diverse and equitable healthcare system.

James McCune Smith, MD (1813–1865)

1837: Smith becomes the first Black American to receive a medical degree. 

In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first Black American to receive a medical degree. 

The journey was not easy; segregated U.S. admissions practices meant he was unable to attend an American university. Instead, Smith enrolled at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in order to earn his degree. Smith was also the first Black person to own and operate a pharmacy in the United States, and the first Black physician to be published in U.S. medical journals. Smith used his writing talents to challenge low-grade science and debunk racist medical theories around African Americans.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831–1895)

1864: Crumpler becomes the first Black female physician in the United States.

In 1864, after years as a nurse, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman in the United States to receive an MD degree. She earned her degree from the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts, where she was also the only Black graduate in her class. In 1883, Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses, in which she addressed children’s and women’s health. The book was one of the first publications about medicine written by an African American.

Daniel Hale Williams, MD (1856–1931)

1891: Williams opens the first Black-owned and first interracial hospital in the United States. 

In 1891, Daniel Hale Williams opened the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Chicago, the first Black-owned and first interracial hospital in the United States. Two years later, Williams performed what is considered to be the first documented successful open-heart surgery on a human, making him the first African American cardiologist. Later, he co-founded the National Medical Association and became the first Black physician admitted to the American College of Surgeons.

Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904–1950)

1939: Drew discovers a new technique for blood transfusions, resulting in the first large-scale blood banks. 

Known as the “father of blood banking,” Charles Richard Drew, MD, pioneered blood preservation techniques that led to thousands of lifesaving blood donations. He led the first blood bank project in Britain during World War II, and established the first American Red Cross Blood Bank. (He quit, however, when the Red Cross insisted on segregating African American blood.) He was chief of surgery at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), where he supported many young African Americans pursuing careers in medicine.

Jane Cooke Wright, MD (1919–2013)

1949: Wright begins her research into chemotherapy as a viable option for cancer treatment.  

Wright was the daughter of Louis Tompkins Wright, one of the first African American graduates of Harvard Medical School and founder of the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital. She worked alongside her father to research chemotherapy drugs that eventually led to remissions in patients with leukemia and lymphoma. In 1952, she became the head of the Cancer Research Foundation, and went on to be the highest ranked African American woman at a U.S. medical institution. Her research helped transform chemotherapy from a last resort to a viable treatment option for cancer. 

Sketchy is committed to confronting institutional racism in the healthcare system and inspiring health professionals to advocate for equity as a pivotal part of caring for their patients and their communities. Read our Statement on Equity & Anti-Racism In Medical Education and Healthcare to learn more.

Meaghan Foster, MD
Family Medicine 
Jasmine D. Thompson, MD 
Emergency Medicine
Austin E. Carmack, MD
General Surgery 
Alessandra Petrillo, MD
Internal Medicine 
Future Plans: Heme/Onc Fellowship
Arjan Ahluwalia, MD
Internal Medicine 
Future Plans: GI Fellowship
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