Black History Month: 10 Healthcare and Nurse Innovators

Last Updated on February 13, 2024

celebrating black history month: historical figures in nursing and healthcare

February is Black History Month, a time to celebrate to the rich and underappreciated story of trailblazers in American history. At CareerStaff, healthcare is close to our hearts. Therefore, we’re proud to join the celebration of black history with a showcase of inspirational historical figures who have had a unique and unforgettable impact. This month, discover ten changemakers, from black medical inventors, physicians, and nurses throughout history who have changed healthcare as we know it.

Celebrating Black History Month

Important as it is to the nation as a whole, Black History Month has its own special meaning within the healthcare community. African Americans have been making significant contributions to nursing and medicine since the earliest days of American history. Despite facing discrimination and implicit bias, many have overcome these obstacles to make an inspiring mark on healthcare. Here are a few changemakers to celebrate!

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American registered nurse in the U.S, earning her professional nursing license in 1879. She later became director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for Black children in New York, and fought for women’s rights even after retiring, “After the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920, Mahoney was among the first women who registered to vote in Boston,” notes the National Women’s History Museum.

A black-and-white image of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first african american nurse, in white bonnet and historical nursing uniform
Mary Eliza Mahoney

James McCune Smith

James McCune Smith was the first African American to receive a medical degree. Despite having to complete his degree in the United Kingdom, he achieved this feat in 1837 at the University of Glasgow. Additionally, he is also known for his introduction to “My Bondage and My Freedom” by Frederick Douglass.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Widely acknowledged as the first African-American woman physician in the U.S., Rebecca Lee Crumpler received her diploma from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849, when she was 28 years old.

She earned great respect at Geneva after facing rejection from other medical schools in New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, where her male classmates “quieted down and immediately became more studious than those the Geneva faculty had taught in the past,” repots PBS.

Daniel Hale Williams

One of the first doctors to perform open-heart surgery in the U.S. (way back in 1893), Daniel Hale Williams was the first African-American charter member of the American College of Surgeons. He was also co-founder of the National Medical Association, and founder of Chicago’s Provident Hospital — America’s first racially-integrated nursing and intern program.

Patricia Bath

Patricia Bath is a great example of black medical inventors who made a difference in healthcare. Not only did Patricia Bath found the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, she also invented laserphaco, a new technique for performing cataract surgery. She was also the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States in 1983.

Jane Cooke Wright

Elected as the New York Cancer Society’s first woman president in 1971, Jane Cooke Wright had been a leader in cancer and chemotherapy research for decades before then. She was appointed head of the Cancer Research Foundation in 1952. Afterwards, she was appointed to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Alexa Canady

“The greatest challenge I faced in becoming a neurosurgeon was believing it was possible,” as Alexa Canady, the first Black female American to become a neurosurgeon (in 1981), once famously said. True to the spirit of that statement, continues to advocate for young women to work in medicine and neurosurgery.

Betty Smith Williams

Betty Smith Williams another trailblazers paving for the way for African American nurses and healthcare as a whole. A distinguished nurse and doctor, Betty Smith Williams either founded or co-founded a huge variety of groundbreaking organizations, including the National Black Nurses Association, the Council of Black Nurses Los Angeles and the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations, Inc.

Lillian Holland Harvey

Lillian Holland Harvey started the first program offering a nurse baccalaureate degree at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University, a historically black college and institution). As the University of Alabama explains, her graduates “would forever credit Dr. Harvey with having a powerful influence on their lives through encouraging them to advance their education, be involved in their communities, and balance work with family.”

Solomon Carter Fuller

An immigrant from Liberia, Solomon Carter Fuller was America’s first Black psychiatrist, eventually becoming associate professor of pathology and neurology at Boston University in 1921. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Dr. Fuller is “underappreciated as a pioneer of Alzheimer’s disease,” working alongside Alois Alzheimer in Munich and translating many of Dr. Alzheimer’s works into English.  

Make a Difference in Healthcare Every Day

Happy Black History Month from CareerStaff! If you’re seeking a healthcare or nursing job, we’re here to support your career and help you make a difference every day. As one of the top healthcare agencies in America, we’re proud to provide equal job opportunities for per diem, local, and travel healthcare positions nationwide.

Browse our available healthcare jobs or Quick Apply below to connect with your dedicated recruiter today.

Healthcare Job Quick Apply