For many people, when they think about major figures in medicine and health, a bunch of old (or dead, or both) white men probably come to mind. This is because for a long time, women and people of color were not welcome in the medical profession, and those who were — and even those who made great strides and major contributions to the field — were often overlooked by history books or just plain ignored.
In reality, though, there have been many people of color — including these black women — who have left a powerful mark on health, medicine and the conversations around both. Read up on these women’s health heroes and celebrate their impact on the field — during Black History Month and all year long.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders
Dr. Joycelyn Elders has been one of the most powerful voices in public health over the past several decades. After college, Elders joined the Army and then in 1956, went to medical school, where she was required to eat in a separate dining room with the cleaning staff away from her classmates. By 1961, she was the chief resident at the University of Arkansas, where she oversaw the all-white, all-male residents and interns.
In 1978, Elders became the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology and continued to conduct research and work in clinical practice in this area through the 1980s. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Elders the head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987, where she lobbied for expanded sex ed, prompting conversations on a national level as well. Overseeing the Department of Health between 1987 and 1992, Elders brought public health issues to the forefront, nearly doubling childhood immunizations, expanding the state’s prenatal care program and increasing home-care options for the chronically or terminally ill.
In 1993, Clinton named Elders U.S. Surgeon General. After 15 months on the job, she was forced to resign because of some of her more controversial views, such as distributing contraceptives in schools and teaching masturbation as a legitimate way of expressing human sexuality.
Dr. Donna Christian-Christensen
When Dr. Donna Christian-Christensen was elected as the delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1996, she was the first female medical doctor to serve in Congress, but that was far from her first achievement. She started working in an emergency room in the Virgin Islands in 1975, then quickly got into community organizing as well once she started talking to her patients and learning about their social and political concerns.
After that, she ran her own practice and began working as a health administrator, eventually rising to the position of assistant commissioner of health for the Virgin Islands. Christian-Christensen held a variety of local government positions before her 1996 election.
“In my practice you always find that there are a lot of social and other issues that impact the health of your patients,” Christian-Christensen noted in a 2013 interview with the University of Notre Dame Observer. “Many times people would come in just to talk about whatever problems they were having, so I kind of looked at it as bringing my office work from a local level to a larger, national level.”
While in office, Christian-Christensen chaired the Congressional Black Caucus’ Health Braintrust for 15 years. From that position, she continued to work to end health care and health insurance disparities for minority communities and women and fight against the HIV/AIDS threat.
Mary Eliza Mahoney
Not only was Mary Eliza Mahoney the first black professional nurse in America, she was also known for her contributions to both local and national health organizations. When she graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses in 1879 at the age of 34, she was only one of three people (out of 42) to complete the difficult 16-month program.
Because of the difficulty she faced finding a hospital job as a result of her race, Mahoney spent most of the next three decades working as a private nurse, during which time she was renowned for her compassionate patient care and efficiency. Later, she became the director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Long Island, New York.
Following more than 40 years working as a nurse, Mahoney dedicated much of her time to campaigning for women’s equality, including being one of the first women to register to vote in Boston in 1920. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, for her contributions to civil rights and medicine.
When Ericka Hart was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer in May 2014 at the age of 28 and tried to do an image search for black women who underwent double mastectomies, she wasn’t able to find anything. That’s when Hart decided to insert herself into the conversation and visual narrative of breast cancer and chronic illness and go topless at some public events — including Afropunk Fest 2016 in Brooklyn — as well as in photos on Instagram.
A self-described “kinky, poly, cancer-warrior, activist, sexuality educator and performer,” Hart is making an impact in everything from academia to activism, particularly in amplifying the voices of queer, trans black, brown and femme people. Her powerful speech “Who Is This For?” at the 2017 Philadelphia Women’s March reminded those participating in the day’s activities that cis and trans women of color cannot be an afterthought in the movement.
Hart is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and has so much more to say — so pay attention.
A version of this story was published in February 2019.