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Celebrating Black History Month Recognizing Medical Pioneers

Published on Feb. 23, 2022

You may be aware that since 1976, February has been recognized as Black History Month. But did you know that every year, the president endorses a specific theme?

In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” This year, the recognized theme of “Black Health and Wellness” explores the "the legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, but also other ways of knowing (e.g., birthworkers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora. The 2022 theme considers activities, rituals and initiatives that Black communities have done to be well."  

In honor of this month, we want to recognize the medical contributions of four Black medical pioneers who made Western medicine what it is today.

  • Kizzmekia Corbett, PhD, is an African American immunologist who played a vital role in COVID-19 vaccine development by building on her previous virology research into coronavirus surface proteins. Her prior research also suggested that mRNA-encoded viral proteins could be used to elicit an immune response and create protective antibodies. Corbett’s team partnered with Moderna for vaccine development. She and her team also collaborated with Eli Lilly for production of monoclonal antibody therapy.   
  • Charles Drew, MD, was an African American surgeon who pioneered methods of storing blood for transfusion using plasma rather than whole blood, as this product was more stable and versatile. He also organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. and directed the blood plasma programs of the U.S. and Great Britain during World War II. However, he resigned his post in protest because of discriminatory policies toward African Americans. Drew later taught as a surgeon, with the goal of training “young African American surgeons who would meet the most rigorous standards in any surgical specialty.”
  • Vivien Thomas, LLD, began as a laboratory assistant to surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock and helped to advance the field of shock and trauma research. However, as an African American in the 1930s, he was classified and paid as a janitor. Later, Thomas played an instrumental role in developing the first successful repair for cyanotic congenital heart disease—originally named the Blalock-Taussig shunt, but for which he was later credited. Utilizing his skills, he also trained many surgeons in specialized cardiothoracic techniques.
  • Jane C. Wright, MD, was an African American physician whose work changed the landscape of cancer treatment. Initially working alongside her father, Wright studied chemotherapy drugs—rarely used at the time—and achieved remission in some leukemia and lymphoma patients.  This led to her research in the use of methotrexate for treatment of breast cancer. Because of her early work in the field of chemotherapy, these drugs have become a stable of modern cancer care.

We are honored to recognize these medical pioneers’ stories and their contributions to medicine. In honor of Black History Month, please join us in celebrating the contributions and accomplishments of Black Americans in the medical field and beyond.