Among them James McCune Smith (1813-1865). He was born into slavery, dreamed of becoming a doctor, and because he was denied admission to American colleges, traveled to Scotland, where he attended the University of Glasgow and earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees by the age of 24. In 1837, Dr. Smith returned to this continent and established his medical practice and pharmacy in New York City, making him the first African American doctor with his own practice in the United States. With a keen interest in languages, he mastered Greek, Latin, and French and had a working knowledge of Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, and German, allowing him to communicate effectively with his Black and white patients.
Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931) apprenticed with a surgeon, earned a medical degree, and began working as a surgeon in Chicago in 1884. Hospitals at that time barred Black doctors from working on staff, so Dr. Williams opened the nation’s first Black-owned interracial hospital, Provident Hospital. On July 10, 1893, he repaired the pericardium of a patient who had been stabbed in a knife fight, the first documented open-heart surgery on a human. Dr. Williams is regarded as the first African American cardiologist. He co-founded the National Medical Association and became the first Black physician admitted to the American College of Surgeons.
As the daughter of one of the first African American graduates of Harvard Medical School, Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013) grew up interested in healthcare. After earning her medical degree, Dr. Wright worked alongside her father at the Cancer Research Foundation, which her father established in 1948 in New York City. Together, they researched chemotherapy drugs that led to remissions in patients with leukemia and lymphoma until her father died in 1952. Dr. Wright took over as head of the Cancer Research Foundation at 33. She went on to work as the director of cancer chemotherapy at New York University Medical Center and was an associate dean at New York Medical College. The New York Cancer Society elected Dr. Wright as its first woman president in 1971. Her research helped transform chemotherapy from a last resort to a viable treatment for cancer.