Medical innovators who saved millions lay foundation for today’s black health practitioners

James McCune Smith left the Free African School in New York as its top student, but had to go to the University of Glasgow to become the first African-American with a medical degree in 1837.   By 1893, Daniel Hale Williams conducted the first open heart surgery ever in the black-owned Provident Hospital in Chicago.

Two notable black nurses during the Civil War were Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  Mary Eliza Mahoney was first black woman to receive a nursing degree in 1879.

In 1869, Robert Tanner Freeman was the first black dentist to receive a dental degree, earning his from Harvard School of Dentistry.

Charles Drew also had to leave the country, going to Canada to get his medical degree from McGill University.   He returned to Columbia University where he set up its first blood plasma bank, was the first black to receive a Doctor of Medical Science degree and was called to England to set up its first blood plasma bank by 1939.   He spent the 1940s as department chair of surgery, then chief of medical staff at Howard University’s Freedman’s Hospital before dying in an automobile accident in 1950.

With such a track record of pacesetting medicine, our recommended activity for Aug. 11 is  seeking an appointment with one of the thousands of men and women who have followed in their footsteps as black health practitioners during National Black Business Month in August 2009.

Our exemplary consumer of the month is Dr. Dee Nehemiah, president of Our Authors Study Club in Los Angeles, the affiliate of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History.   She organized friends to invest in an MRI scanner for her doctor on Crenshaw Blvd. which was delivered in June, following his treatment which brought her back from heart disease three times.

Her point is the same reason that blacks created more than 200 hospitals between 1880 and 1920–the need for professional medical care in our communities.

With health insurance reform at the top of the national agenda during August, visiting a black health professional is not only good for preventive medicine, but it is also an opportunity to understand the specific issues that most severely affect African-Americans.

Such support helped propel Dr. Regina Benjamin from her rural Louisiana clinic to nomination as Surgeon General. She joins Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a second-generation doctor, in high ranking health posts. Hamburg is new administrator of the Food and Drug Administration.

The National Medical Association and National Dental Association both maintain directories of their members across the country.

Rep. Diane Watson spoke over the weekend about how helpful black practitioners like the late Dr. Henry Lucas have been to legislators in the development of health policy.

There’s also a long-term benefit.    Black health professionals tend to replicate.  Each one seems to inspire more young people to follow in their footsteps.

With health care comprising a sixth of the economy, African-Americans must take charge of their own health care by embracing the talented practitioners who give of their free time to conduct free screenings and other preventive care while mentoring generations to come.

Clinics like that opened by Dr. Benjamin may be part of the solution in the 21st century, just as blacks opened hospitals at the beginning of the 20th century.   Any such facilities will need doctors, dentists and nurses.

As health insurance reform advances, greater numbers of blacks will have expanded choices.  We need not throw out the baby with the bath water by shunning our own professionals who saw us without insurance in many cases.   Put that 31 Ways, 31 Days habit in place before health insurance reform takes hold.

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