10 Incredible Black Women Who Changed Healthcare

Bayo Curry-Winchell MD, MS
February 28, 2022
4 mins
Why Representation Matters Now More Than Ever

Growing up, I was inspired by the story of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black woman physician in the United States. My dad shared her story, and when I saw a picture of someone who looked like me, it was so inspiring. Her story has been a motivating factor in my career. Unfortunately, only about two percent of female physicians are Black. We need more representation in the medical field, and I hope to see these numbers grow in the future.

My passion for advocating for BIPOC and underserved communities originates with my dad. It is important for me to use my role as a physician to raise awareness regarding health inequities, disparities, and medical racism. 

Unfortunately, as a Black female doctor, I face unconscious bias daily. My title as a physician is often removed or not acknowledged, and I’m often called by my first name while my colleagues are referred to as doctors. I’m often stereotyped as aggressive based on my assertiveness or delivery of patient orders in a clinical setting and face frequent inquiries surrounding my education. People have even asked, “Are you really a doctor?” Sadly, some patients do not feel comfortable seeing a Black doctor. 

Representation is key. I truly believe in the motto “If you see it, you can be it.” I love that I can be that example for kids of color. It is so satisfying when I tell them I’m a doctor and their eyes light up, and they realize they can be a doctor one day, too. We need more doctors of color to help plant those seeds and ensure a more diverse tomorrow in healthcare and beyond.

In this post, you’ll meet some incredible Black women who broke down barriers and paved the way for generations of healthcare workers. Read their stories and leave inspired.

Dorothy Lavina Brown, MD

Brown — known to many as “Dr. D.” — was the first Black female surgeon in the American South. She practiced for years in the Southeastern United States during the 1900s. She was also the first Black female to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly and was elected to the Tennessee House or Representatives, where she fought for the rights of women and people of color. 

Alexa Canady, MD 

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Canady became the first Black woman neurosurgeon in the U.S., in 1981. She went on to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD

Born in 1831, Crumpler was the first Black woman to become a doctor of medicine in the U.S. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses, which focused on maternal and pediatric care.

Georgia E.L. Patton, MD

Patton was the first Black woman to become licensed as a doctor in Tennessee. Born into slavery in 1864, she was the only member of her family to graduate high school, and she then went on to earn her medical degree at the Meharry Medical Department of Central Tennessee College. With big goals for service to others, she left for Liberia immediately after graduation, where she served as a medical missionary for two years. 

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman not only helped hundreds of enslaved people escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but also was a nurse during the Civil War. After the war ended, she started a home for the elderly in Auburn, New York; it is now part of Harriet Tubman National Historic Park.

Jane Cooke Wright, MD

When it comes to Wright, there is no shortage of accomplishments or inspiration. She was one of the first Black women to graduate from Harvard, as well as the first Black doctor on staff at a public hospital in New York City. In 1964, she was appointed to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke by President Lyndon Johnson. At the age of 48, she became a professor of surgery, head of the cancer chemotherapy department, and associate dean at New York Medical College, where she made strides in the treatment of breast and skin cancer. 

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black woman to complete training and then work as a professional nurse in the U.S. In 1908, she helped to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The Mary Mahoney Award was named in her honor and is considered one of the highest honors in nursing to this day. Mahoney was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame in 1976.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line. Research done with HeLa cells underpins much of modern medicine. While she was a cancer patient, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed and gave some of her tissue to a researcher without Lacks’s knowledge or consent. The story of Henrietta Lacks illustrates some of the racial inequities that are embedded in the U.S. research and healthcare systems. One of her cells’ most recent applications has been in research for vaccines against COVID-19.

Joycelyn Elders, MD

In 1993, Elders became the first Black person to be Surgeon General of the U.S., when she was appointed by President Bill Clinton. Elders strongly advocated for progressive sex and reproductive education, especially in Black communities. She has been ahead of her time throughout her career and speaks out for marijuana legalization, as well. 

Patricia Bath, MD

A true visionary, Bath spent her career advocating for blind and visually impaired people. A pioneer of laser cataract surgery, she founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976, was the first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology in the U.S., and the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent.

Bayo Curry-Winchell MD, MS

Bayo Curry-Winchell, MD, is a regional clinical director at Carbon Health and the company’s co-interim director for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. She lives and practices medicine in Reno, Nevada.