5 Influential Black Physicians

Posted Feb 1, 2023 under:

Black doctors: Pioneers in shaping the medical field

Black Americans have provided countless instances of innovation, invention, and groundbreaking research to the medical field. In honor of Black History Month, we have compiled five influential Black doctors who shaped the medical field for generations to come.

Black doctors have played a vital role in shaping the medical field, leaving a lasting impact through their significant contributions throughout history.

Here are just a few examples of the many accomplished and influential black doctors who have made important contributions to the medical field.

James McCune Smith, M.D. (1813-1865) & Rebecca Lee Crumpler, M.D. (1831-1895)

Dr. James Smith and Dr. Rebecca Crumpler are recognized as the first Black man and woman to receive medical degrees. Smith received his degree in 1837, although he was forced to initially enroll at the University of Glasgow Medical School in Scotland following racist practices by United States medical schools. On top of his groundbreaking achievement, Smith became the first Black man in the U.S. to own and operate a pharmacy and be published in a U.S. medical journal.

Rebecca Crumpler earned her medical degree in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts following several years as a nurse. She was the only black graduate of the institution. Following the end of the civil war in 1865, Crumpler worked with fellow Black doctors at the Freedman’s Bureau caring for formerly enslaved persons.

“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; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration,” she wrote.

Crumpler continued to excel despite facing racism and sexism, including writing A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts in 1883.

As the first Black man and women to receive medical degrees in the U.S., Smith and Crumpler paved the way for others on this list and Black men and women today.

Leonidas Harris Barry, M.D. (1902-1995)

Dr. Leonidas Barry is known as the first Black gastroenterologist. He received his medical degree from Rush Medical College in 1929, before becoming an intern at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington D.C.

Barry then became the first Black intern at Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1931 when entered his residency. He continued to break barriers in 1934, when he became a junior attending physician in gastroenterology at Chicago’s Provident Hospital, the first Black-owned and operated hospital in the United States.

In 1946 Barry began a 17-year struggle to be named to the attending staff at Michael Reese Hospital. Despite being known and recognized as the world’s leading gastroenterologist, Michael Reese Hospital continually deemed him “unqualified”. In 1963 he was finally granted the position and remained as the senior attending physician for the remainder of his career.

Throughout his medical career, Barry was a prominent figure in delivering needed medical care to underserved communities. In 1970 Barry helped organize the “Flying Black Medics,” a group of physicians who flew to rural and underserved communities to provide care. The “Flying Black Medics” played a crucial piece in providing care during the Cairo Race Riots in Cairo, Illinois.

In total Barry published 84 articles in local, national, and international medical journals, compiling much of his literature into his authoritative textbook, Gastrointestinal Pan-Endoscopy, in 1974.

Daniel Hale Williams, M.D. (1858-1931)

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams became the first black cardiologist in 1883. He later went on to perform the first open heart surgery and became the founder of Provident Hospital (see: Dr. Leonidas Barry).

After graduating from Chicago Medical College in 1883, Hale went on to serve as a surgeon for the South Side Dispensary from 1884 to 1892. Simultaneously, he worked as a physician for the Protestant Orphan Asylum from 1883 to 1893. In 1891, Hale founded Provident Hospital with the aim of enhancing medical opportunities for Black Americans.

On July 10, 1893, Williams performed the world’s first open heart surgery, despite prevalent opinions at the time frowning on the surgical treatment of heart wounds. Williams opened the patient’s thoracic cavity without the use of blood transfusions or modern antibiotics. Following the procedure the patient lived another 20 years, before passing in 1913.

Throughout the remainder of his career Williams served on staff at Cook County Hospital (1903-1909), and St. Luke’s Hospital (1912-1931), and became the only Black charter member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.

James Robert Gladden, M.D. (1911-1969)

Dr. James Gladden is known as the first Black cardiologist and becoming the first Black man certified by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery, and the first African American to be elected to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

Further achievements included:

  • First Black American elected to be a fellow of the American College of Surgeons (1951)
  • First non-white physician to perform a major surgery at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, Bermuda (1956)
  • Chairman of the Orthopedic Section of the National Medical Association
  • Chief of Orthopedic Surgery at the Howard University School of Medicine and “Freedmen’s” Hospital.

Dr. Gladden today is recognized as a pioneer of not only Black Americans in orthopedics, but in healthcare as whole due to his numerous achievements and high-ranking posts within hospitals and medical societies.  



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