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Beyond the Hospital: Healthcare Heroes of Black History

Gladys Smith, Linda Cox, and her daughter Cheryl gaze at a picture of Biddy Mason, Cox’s great-grandmother, at a monument to her.

Gladys Smith, Linda Cox, and her daughter Cheryl gaze at a picture of Biddy Mason, Cox’s great-grandmother, at a monument to her. Photo credit: https://la.curbed.com/2017/3/1/14756308/biddy-mason-california-black-history

Beyond the Hospital: 4 Healthcare Heroes of Black History Month

While acknowledging that we're celebrating Black History Month encouraged by a popular date on the calendar, we know this is much more than a marketing moment. It’s a lifelong, 365-day-a-year commitment to the acknowledgment of our collective history. For this reason, we are proud to be sharing stories of Black achievement and to honor those who have courageously sacrificed personal safety for the betterment of society through healthcare. These stories & heroes deserve to be amplified and celebrated all year long.


#1 / Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891): A Fortune Built on Generosity

A photo of Biddy Mason

Bridget "Biddy" Mason (Aug. 15, 1818- Jan. 15, 1891) Photo credit: www.aclunc.org/sites/goldchains/explore/biddy-mason.html

“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come of it. The open hand is blessed, for it gives abundance, even as it receives.” -Biddy Mason

In 1866, two lots on rural Spring Street, in what is present day Downtown Los Angeles sold for $250. A title was drafted up for the sale, signed with a large “X’. She could neither read nor write, and it was the first piece of land she would own, but it wouldn’t be the last for Biddy Mason. By the time she passed away in 1891, she would amass a fortune of over $300,000, making her the “richest colored woman west of the Mississippi.” For one who had been a slave just a few years previous, this was truly a remarkable achievement.

Mason had started her life in Hancock County, Georgia in 1818. Little is known of her childhood, but when she entered her adult years, she was purchased by Robert Smith of Mississippi. Here she tended to livestock, worked the fields, and became an expert nurse and midwife to Smith’s family. During this time, she also gave birth to three daughters of her own.

In 1847 Smith and his wife, recent converts to the new Mormon faith, decided to make the long journey to Salt Lake City, with Mason walking the Mormon caravan 1700 miles mostly by foot with her youngest daughter on her back. It wasn’t long after that the household again moved, this time to San Bernardino, California, where they lay stake to a pot of land and raised cattle. At this time, Mason became acquainted with the local Black community. As California was a free state, any slave that entered was technically free; Mason most likely had no knowledge of this fact, however, and continued to serve the Smiths for years. Mounting tensions in the country finally pushed Smith to consider traveling to Texas to sell his slaves before local authorities were notified.

Eventually freed slave Elizabeth Rowan, a close friend of Mason’s, sent word to sheriff Frank Dewitt that Smith had been illegally holding slaves. Smith was approached and ordered to appear in court for “persuading, enticing and seducing persons of color to go out of the state of California.” After hours of courtroom appeals, the presiding judge gave Mason her freedom.

Soon after being set free, she began to work for Dr. John Strother Griffin, a white southerner who was impressed by Mason’s nursing and midwifery skills. She would eventually deliver hundreds of babies in Los Angeles and start her own private practice. Mason quickly earned the respect of the local community of two thousand Angelenos, Black and White, and the name “Auntie Mason.”

As a shrewd businesswoman, Mason noted how downtown Los Angeles was booming. Spring Street had become crowded with shops and boarding houses, and she eventually sold a lot on Olive Street and half of her original parcel on Spring for a sizeable profit, reserving the remainder to build a two-story brick building. The bottom floor was leased to new businesses; the top she took for her own home and hosted community gatherings. Land was also donated to establish the First AME, the city’s first Black church, and was given generously to others who needed assistance to build their own homes. Mason also visited the incarcerated and sheltered and fed the poor frequently.[5] She was instrumental in establishing a traveler’s aid center, a day care for Black children, and the first elementary school for Black children.

#2 / Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895):
First Black Woman Doctor

Front page of Dr. Crumpler's

Front page of Dr. Crumpler's (1831-1895)"A Book of Medical Discourses." There are no existing photos of her. Photo credit: https://www.nps.gov/people/dr-rebecca-lee-crumpler.htm

“What we need today in every community is not a shrinking or flagging of womanly usefulness in this field of labor, but renewed and courageous readiness to do when and wherever duty calls.” -Rebecca Lee Crumpler

At the dawn of the American Civil War, a growing political and philosophical rift was threatening to tear the country in two. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, a practicing nurse, had just entered the New England Female Medical College in Boston on a state-funded scholarship and the support of doctors with whom she had worked. She may have reflected on the lessons of her aunt, who prescribed homeopathic remedies to the sick, or the encouragement of teachers at the English and Classical School in West Newton, Massachusetts, where abolitionist and women’s suffrage advocates had pushed her to pursue her dreams. Whatever the case, the numbers were stacked against her; in that year, there were only 300 women out of 54,543 physicians in the U.S. None were Black. Crumpler would be the first.

The war ended, and with its end came a need for medical attention for the injured. Good care was lacking or nonexistent for most Black veterans. As a result, Crumpler moved to Richmond to work with Black physicians at the Freedman’s Bureau, caring for former slaves and their families who had been denied care. It was “a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.”

An environment filled with ridicule made her time in Richmond more than challenging. Crumpler was subject to daily episodes of racism and harassment from colleagues. At the time many male doctors refused to believe a woman could handle the workload, being” too fragile.” Others were convinced that a woman’s brain was 10% smaller than that of a man. As a result, most of her prescriptions were not approved by pharmacists who questioned her authority. Administrators joked that her title “M.D.” stood for “mule driver.” Others simply ignored her diagnoses.

Crumpler ultimately found the experience transformative. "I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside and receiving children in the house for treatment”, sometimes refusing pay. Her consistent dedication and perseverance to helping the underserved in the Black community inspired others to follow.

Although no photo of Dr. Crumpler is known to exist, her writings remain. Much of these focus on preventative medicine and nutrition for families. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, addressing the health needs of these groups, and is dedicated to “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.” Today, we remember her courage and compassion to help those often cast aside.

#3 / Elizabeth Allen: An Army Nurse Advocates for Those Who Serve

A photo of Elizabeth Allen

Photo credit: http://www.annarbor.com/news/ann-arbors-elizabeth-allen-among-vietnam-vets-featured-in-our-vietnam-generation-which-premieres-ton/

It was 1966, and cultural tensions flared in the U.S. Just a few years before, the country had passed a major piece of legislation -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- and was involved in a war thousands of miles away. Protesters clashed with police and angry mobs, standing against what they believed to be an unjust cause; others against the systematic injustice that had long held the country back from fulfilling its Constitutional promise. There was more violence to come, it seemed. The country needed healing.

A 25-year-old Elizabeth Allen, armed with a master’s degree in Psychiatric Nursing and a title of “Captain” from Officer Candidate School”, wasn’t just going to take the safe route. She had set her sights on the one place her grandmother worried about most – Vietnam. “Yes, I knew that there was a war going on over there, but there was a war going on here too.”

Allen knew that Black troops were more likely to be assigned to combat units. Although she was given an option to serve in a field hospital, where “white uniforms” were more common among Army personnel, Allen chose the front lines in Cu Chi province, just south of the Vietcong held “Iron Triangle.” It was here – in army fatigues – where she would find Black soldiers in need, and a greater percentage of Black officers who were responsible for their welfare. As she saw it, a Black medical professional could act as an advocate for the overlooked. In Vietnam, she had a voice “because...Black sergeants had never seen anybody like me in a war zone, so they were eager to talk.”

And speak with the Army she did. As head nurse of the 71st Evac Hospital in Pleiku, she assisted in surgical intensive care and triage, where soldiers both black and white looked to her to be their voice. Again, she used her relationships with Black officers to help secure scarce goods for her patients.

Civil Rights marches had gained momentum stateside. At Army base hospitals abroad, the racist backlash was rampant. Nurses had long treated white servicemen before black ones, but now this practice was more common. There were countless accounts of nurses even strangling Vietcong injured; both black soldiers and Vietnamese seemed to bear the blame for cultural tensions of the time. As a Black woman who had been perceived as “other” her whole life, Allen knew she had to call out the double standards that existed in the military and medical community, though reporting these incidents to superiors often made her unpopular among the old guard.

Women were allowed only one year in a war zone, so Allen knew her time in Vietnam would eventually come to an end. Still, there were more questions. Upon her return, would she face the same treatment that she had seemingly left behind?

When she did return, it was to question the definition of who was considered “a veteran.” In her eyes, those serving in a medical capacity were not then fully recognized by the military. Perhaps she and her fellow nurses had not carried a gun, but they had supported soldiers and the Vietnamese people as healers and counselors. For the next 14 years she would remain serving in the Army reserve.

During this time, her advocacy helped access those who could implement change: eventually she was able to gain the attention of Governor James Blanchard, who formed the Michigan Agent Orange Commission. The Governor appointed Allen as chairwoman, and she quickly called attention to research connecting Agent Orange exposure to illness in Vietnam veterans and genetic damage in their children. Allen also consulted with the Veterans Administration on the care of African American and women veterans with post-traumatic stress. This work ultimately led to the VA addressing underserved veterans and their families, problems with homelessness and incarceration due to PTSD, and the passing of the Agent Orange Act of 1991.

#4 / Vivien Thomas (1910 - 1985) : Heart Surgery Pioneer

A photo of Vivien Thomas

Photo credit: Vivien Thomas (Aug. 29, 1910 - Nov. 26, 1985) https://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2021/02/01/01/42/just-one-more-vivien-thomas-remembering-a-pioneering-legend

Vivien Thomas’ dream was to attend university and eventually study medicine. The lanky twenty-year-old man from Nashville, whose grandfather had been a slave, faced mounting odds, however. He had just graduated with honors from high school, but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had caused widespread panic, making his future uncertain. Thomas knew that his chances of being accepted to Vanderbilt University, then an all-white school, were remote at best. Instead, he applied for a laboratory assistant position at the experimental animal laboratory of Dr. Alfred Blalock.

Blalock and researcher Dr. Joseph Beard hired Thomas, degreeless and inexperienced, and tutored the eager pupil in anatomy and physiology. It was not long before Thomas had mastered the many complex surgical techniques and methodologies used in the lab, and soon he was doing the work of a postdoctoral researcher. Together they investigated the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock. This work later became the basis of research on Crush Syndrome, eventually saving the lives of thousands of soldiers during the Second World War. Despite this fact, Thomas would be paid a janitor’s wage, classified as such in the university staff records.

The team soon focused their energies on vascular and cardiac work, ignoring medical taboos against operating on the heart. As the prominence of Blalock’s shock research grew, he was offered a position as chief surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical School and insisted that Thomas accompany him. It was here, in 1943, that Blalock was approached by Dr. Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist who had been trying to devise a surgical solution to a fatal congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot, or “blue baby syndrome.” Thomas was tasked with creating a blue baby-like condition in a dog, then correcting it by creating a shunt that would allow blood to flow from a major artery through a connection to the pulmonary artery, thereby increasing oxygenated blood to the body. After two years of repeating the procedure in the lab, Thomas demonstrated that it was not lethal, convincing Blalock that the operation could be safely attempted on a human patient.

During the first procedure on an infant, Thomas stood on a stepstool behind Blalock, coaching him over his shoulder. It was a success. When the procedure was published in the May 1945 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Blalock and Taussig received sole credit. Thomas was not mentioned.

Blalock, Taussig and Thomas went on to operate on hundreds of infants, with doctors from around the globe coming to study the procedure. In 1946, Thomas again demonstrated his genius, developing a method to improve blood circulation for infants whose aorta and pulmonary arteries were reversed. When Blalock inspected Thomas' completed procedure, noting the perfect and almost invisible sutures, he was awestruck. "This looks like something the Lord made," he was quoted as saying.

In 1964, Blalock retired from his work at Johns Hopkins. Thomas continued to serve as Supervisor of Surgical Laboratories, and in 1976, was finally awarded an honorary doctorate by the School of Medicine. His numerous contributions to cardiac surgery laid the foundation for modern methodologies today.

While we continue to educate ourselves and our customers, we also continue to fight against racism & oppression, proudly celebrating and illuminating our Black healthcare heroes.

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