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Jessica Dickenson

Honoring Healthcare Pioneers for Trailblazing Black Excellence & Representation

This Black History Month, let us celebrate and honor these pioneers whose resilience, innovation and dedication have left an enduring impact on the healthcare field.

History owes a great debt to the incredible work of healthcare heroes. While names like Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and Margaret Sanger rightly serve a notable place in the annals of these healthcare workers, so many individuals have seen their legacies lost to history or limited by a lack of knowledge from the general public and those who don’t realize the career footsteps they are following.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is essential to shine a spotlight on the remarkable individuals who have left an indelible mark on the field of healthcare. From groundbreaking research to revolutionary medical practices, these healthcare pioneers have shattered glass ceilings and broken barriers, significantly advancing healthcare practices and paving the way for future generations.

Let's take a moment to honor and recognize their extraordinary contributions and pay tribute to their incredible and deserving legacies.

Harriet Tubman

Did you know that Harriet Tubman was a nurse? Though she's most often remembered for her heroic work as an abolitionist, Tubman also served as a nurse, cook, scout, and spy for the 1st South Carolina Volunteers Regiment and at Freedmen’s Hospital.

Tubman was a highly skilled herbalist and treated soldiers for battle wounds and infectious diseases such as smallpox and dysentery. In 1865, Tubman was appointed matron of the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Even after the war, she continued her work in nursing by founding the Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes.

Her work on the frontlines highlights a lesser-known but crucial aspect of her phenomenal legacy.

Patricia Bath

While you have probably heard of Harriet Tubman in history class, most have never heard of Dr. Patricia Bath. Dr. Bath’s contributions to ophthalmology are groundbreaking. Not only did she invent the Laserphaco Probe used in cataract surgery, but she was the first Black woman physician to receive a medical patent. The Laserphaco probe is a tool that uses a laser to vaporize cataracts in a patient’s eye and enables a surgeon to remove the lens of the eye and insert a replacement.

In 1976 she helped found the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. The organization has promoted what Dr. Bath called community ophthalmology, which advances optic health through grass-roots screenings, treatments and education. Dr. Bath also became the history as the first African American woman on staff as a surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center.

If you or a loved one has had cataract surgery, you can thank Dr. Bath for your eyesight!

Leonidas Berry

Dr. Leonidas Berry left an indelible mark on the medical field as a pioneer in both gastroscopy and endoscopy. In 1955, he helped develop the Eder-Berry gastrobiopsy-scope. This would be the first instrument that facilitated direct-vision sampling of stomach tissues.

Dr. Berry’s work did not end with the invention of the gastrobiopsy-scope. Throughout the rest of his career, Dr. Berry published an influential textbook, became president of the National Medical Association from 1965-1966 and founded the “Flying Black Medics”, which supplied health care to black communities in Illinois.

Estelle Massey Osborne

Estelle Massey Osborne was an influential nurse and educator dedicated to eliminating racial discrimination in the nursing industry.

Estelle Massey Osborne lobbied for greater recognition of Black nurses. In 1943, she was appointed as a consultant to the National Nursing Council for War Service where she acted as a liaison to nursing schools. Osborne actively worked to change discriminatory policies and by the end of World War II, 20 new nursing schools had begun admitting Black students. In 1945, she became the first Black instructor at New York University's Department of Nursing Education.

Her tireless efforts paved the way for greater diversity and inclusion, and the effects of her work continue to resonate in the nursing profession today.

Marilyn Hughes Gaston

Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston was the first black woman to direct the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. Before she became the director, she had established a long career dedicated to serving poor and minority families.

Dr. Gaston published an extensive study based on her research on sickle-cell disease (SCD). Her 1989 study showed that babies should be screened for SCD at birth so that preventive penicillin could be given right away. The study resulted in Congressional legislation to encourage and fund SCD screening programs nationwide and within one year, 40 states had begun screening programs.

From 1990 until her retirement in 2001, Dr. Gaston went on to become director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration where she focused on improving health care services for poor and underserved families. 

Robert Tanner Freeman

Robert Tanner Freeman made history as the first African American to attend and graduate from the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. As one of the school’s first six students, he paved the way for future generations in the field of dentistry.

While working as a dentist in Washington D.C., he became a pillar in the black community because of his commitment to mentoring other African American youth interested in the medical profession. But his legacy extended beyond his lifetime. He was honored by the National Dental Association which adopted Dr. Freeman’s mission to extend dental treatment and education to the impoverished, the disabled and all underrepresented people of color.

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins shattered barriers as the first African American woman to become a dentist in the United States. Her pioneering achievements opened doors for aspiring Black women in the dental profession.

Rollins also promoted women’s rights by participating in several women’s organizations and serving as president of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago. 

The contributions of these healthcare pioneers extend far beyond their individual achievements. They have paved the way for future generations of healthcare professionals, inspiring a legacy of excellence and perseverance by those who now stand on their shoulders.

This Black History Month, let us celebrate and honor these pioneers whose resilience, innovation and dedication have left an enduring impact on the healthcare field. Their legacies inspire us to continue the journey toward a more inclusive and equitable healthcare system for all.

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* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics 2023 / Occupational Outlook Handbook 2022. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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