Black History Month: 12 Leaders in Nursing and Medicine
Black History Month provides the perfect opportunity to remember and recognize those who have made significant contributions to the fields of nursing and medicine. It can be easy to forget just how far these disciplines have come and the people who worked tirelessly to advance our knowledge and help save lives.
The fact that African Americans have achieved so much in the face of prejudices that made getting an education and advancing within their careers difficult, makes their achievements even more impressive. Many of these professionals weren’t protected under the law let alone supported by national groups like the National Black Nurses Association that exist today.
With that in mind, here is just a small selection of nurses and medical professionals who deserve to be remembered and celebrated this month and throughout the year.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown
Just some of her accomplishments include: earning her nursing bachelor’s degree from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, joining the army where she served in both Japan and Korea and trained nurses headed to the front during the Vietnam war, becoming the first black woman to achieve the ranking of brigadier general and leading the US Army Nurse Corps, which numbered 7,000 members at the time. All this despite being told early on in her career that she would never be allowed into a nursing program.
Throughout her life, she continued to focus on education and personal growth, eventually earning a master’s degree and a PhD in educational administration.
Most people recognize Sojourner Truth as a fervent abolitionist who was able to escape slavery and advocate for the rights of blacks and women, but many don’t know about her own career as a nurse. During her enslavement, she served as a nurse to the Dumont family. When she achieved freedom, she worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington DC. As part of this position, she often spoke before Congress, advocating for nursing education and formal training programs.
Susie King Taylor
During the Civil War, Taylor volunteered for the Union Army and served as a sort of jack-of-all-trades. There wasn’t much she couldn’t do, including firing a gun with impressive accuracy. But perhaps most importantly, Taylor bravely nursed soldiers with little regard to her own health and safety. In fact, against orders, she snuck into the tents of soldiers who had been quarantined with smallpox and provided them with the care they needed to recover. Her kindness and dedication to compassionate care knew no boundaries.
Goldie D. Brangman
Brangman was a part of the emergency surgical team at Harlem Hospital that was responsible for a successful emergency heart surgery that was performed on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after he was stabbed during an assassination attempt in 1958. Many present that day argued for moving King to a different hospital since they were under the assumption that the staff at the Harlem Hospital weren’t up to the task. It was finally decided that King could not survive the move and needed help immediately. Brangman was responsible for physically operating the breathing bag that kept King alive during surgery.
After this momentous day, Brangman went on to have an illustrious career, which includes serving as the CRNA AANA President from 1973-74. On October 2, 2017, she turned 100 years old and still volunteers for the American Red Cross and is an active member of AANA.
This pioneer in ophthalmology is not only passionate about eyesight but also about patient rights. In 1976, Bath founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness with the goal of advocating for eyesight as a basic human right. By 1973, she had already become the first African-American to complete a residency on ophthalmology. Bath decided to pass on her passion through teaching and went on to serve as a faculty member at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA.
Betty Smith Williams
As a leader and trailblazer, Williams clearly recognized the need to forge ahead despite finding roadblocks at every juncture. However, she also understood the power that comes when people join forces and work towards a common goal. As an individual, she was the first to graduate from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in Cleveland, Ohio and the first black person to teach at a higher education institution in California. From there, she went on to start the National Black Nurses Association in 1971, which is still working to improve healthcare for African-Americans across the country.
Lillian Holland Harvey
Harvey was not only a successful nurse, she was a powerful educator. She served for 30 years as the Dean of the Tuskegee University School of nursing where she was responsible for developing the school’s Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. By not allowing the sentiments of her time get in the way of her pursuit of education or success, she served as a powerful example to her students and inspired them to continue their education and give back to the community.
Harriet Tubman is another recognizable name from history, but her work as a nurse is often overshadowed by her efforts to help over 300 slaves travel the underground railroad to freedom. During the Civil War, she also earned a reputation as a capable nurse with an extensive knowledge of natural and herbal remedies. She treated many soldiers who were suffering from dysentery and smallpox and remarkably managed to stay healthy herself. When the war ended, she continued to care for others and eventually helped to start a home for the elderly.
Mary Eliza Mahoney
Mahoney holds the honor of becoming the first black registered nurse. In 1879, she graduated from a program in New England that required 16 hours of labor, seven days a week. By the end of the program, she was one of three graduates out of a class that began with 40 students. She proved her mettle and went on to blaze trails for future nurses. In 1908, she helped to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and proved, on a daily basis, that black nurses were in no way inferior to others. In recognition of her momentous achievements, the American Nurses Association created the Mary Mahoney Award, which is still considered one of the highest honors a nurse can receive.
Mabel Keaton Staupers
From the beginning of her career, Staupers was met with resistance and had to deal with segregated programs that were unwilling to include, let alone encourage black nurses. Instead of becoming discouraged, she continued to care for patients while also fighting for racial equality. As a result of her efforts, all ethnicities were eventually accepted into the US Army and the American Nurses Association. Staupers did not accept segregation as a permanent fact and effectively broke down racial barriers so that black nurses could work and achieve.
Estelle Massey Osborne
Osborne holds the distinction of being the first black woman to earn an MA in nursing. From that point on, her mission was to make sure that other black nurses had better access to higher education and were able to receive an education that was on par with whites. During the 1940s, her work significantly expanded the number of nursing schools accepting black students and led to the US Navy and Army lifting their color ban. In 1945, she joined the faculty at New York University, becoming the first black member.
As an instructor, she inspired students and fought for nurses’ rights. Today, the Estelle Massey Osborne scholarship helps support nurses who want to follow in her footsteps and earn their master’s in nursing.
Adah Belle Samuel Thoms
In 1905, at the age of 25, Thoms graduated from the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing. In an unprecedented move, Thoms was named acting director the same year she earned her degree. At the time, it was unheard of for a black woman to hold such a prestigious position, so she was never officially named director, despite her exemplary record while leading the school.
More than anything, Thoms wanted black nurses to enjoy equal rights and better opportunities. She worked to set up the National Association of Colors Graduate Nurses and fought for black nurses to serve in the American Red Cross and US Army Nurse Corps. She set a great example and used her activism to further her field and pave the way for other ambitious nurses who were ready and willing to serve.
There is no doubt that the rewards of the efforts of these nurses, educators and activists continue to be felt today. That is why it is important to remember what they were able to achieve in the face of incredible challenges, recognize their contributions to their field and be inspired by their example.