February is Black History Month, a time where we intentionally recognize the importance of Black lives and stories to our communities and nation; remember the realities of past and present systems of oppression; and re-commit ourselves to the justice work that remains. Founded as a part of the 1960s Civil Rights movement (1), community health centers like Cherry Health carry a long-standing commitment to social justice, especially through healthcare, at the core of their values.
There are many Black scientists and clinicians who made revolutionary medical discoveries and developed life-saving technologies of whom most people have never learned about. Their accomplishments are even more impressive considering the barriers to education and career-building they experienced along the way.
For example, Chares Drew (born 1904), an African American doctor from Washington, D.C. developed the first method of safely storing blood for future transfusions. He also founded the first blood banks in the United States (3). Today, the availability of blood for transfusions during surgery is often taken for granted. You probably know someone who has either required a blood transfusion or donated blood. Drew was recruited to build a blood bank system in Great Britain after his success in the States during World War II (2), and later he did the same for the American Red Cross. Soon after, though, it was ruled that the blood of African Americans must be kept separate from blood of White persons as transfusions would not be performed transracially. This ruling explicitly treated Black bodies as physically inferior and required that Drew enforce the standard in his blood banks; he refused and resigned from the project. A few years later, in 1950, Drew died tragically in a car crash at the age of 45 (3). While his life and career were short, all our communities continue to benefit from his commitment to improving the health of all humans everywhere.
In 1986, Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston published her research on sickle cell anemia (4), a genetic disease that affects the blood and circulation system leading to things like swelling, pain, and increased risk of stroke (5). She discovered that if newborn babies were screened right after birth to see if they had the disease, treatment could be given sooner and have a much greater effect. Because of her important findings, sickle cell screenings became the standard across the United States and remain in place today improving the lives of thousands. Gaston later became the first Black woman to be the director of a public health service – the Bureau of Primary Health Care – in 1990 (4). The city of Cincinnati, where she went to medical school, even holds a “Marilyn Hughes Gaston Day” to remember her!
We owe so much of our health and wellbeing to the dedication and ingenuity of Black scientists and clinicians. There are many others such as Louis T Wright who developed the injection technique for Tuberculosis tests and William Augustus Hinton who developed a test for diagnosing syphilis (6). We hope you are encouraged to discover the stories of other Black scientists and health professionals (7) that have made our communities and nation healthier!
Later this month, we will recognize events of medical racism and unethical research that must be remembered in order to strive for justice in medicine.
(1) Chronicles: The Community Health Center Story www.chcchronicles.org/stories/community-health-centers-chronicling-their-history-and-broader-meaning
(2) American Chemical Society www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/african-americans-in-sciences/charles-richard-drew.html
(3) Biography www.biography.com/scientist/charles-drew
(4) U.S. National Library of Medicine cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_124.html
(5) Center for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/sicklecell/facts.html
(6) American University of Antigua College of Medicine www.auamed.org/blog/african-american-doctors/
(7) Duke University Medical Center Library and Archives guides.mclibrary.duke.edu/blackhistorymonth/chronology
By: Christa Fernando, AmeriCorps Member