Black Women Medical Pioneers

Helen Octavia Dickens (1909-2001)

First African American woman admitted to American College of Surgeons  

Helen Octavia Dickens graduated with her medical degree from the University of Illinois in 1934, then completed an internship at Provident Hospital, founded by Daniel Hale Williams.  The daughter of a former slave, she would sit at the front of the classroom in medical school to avoid racist comments and gestures made by her classmates.

She focused her attention on obstetrics and gynecologic care, eventually receiving specialized training at Provident. In 1943, she married Purvis Sinclair Henderson, and moved to Harlem Hospital in New York City to work under the guidance of esteemed surgeon and internist, Peter Marshall Murray. In 1945 she received her MS degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and in 1946 she completed her residency at Harlem Hospital and was certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Dickens returned to Philadelphia in 1948 as director of the Mercy Douglass Hospital Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

In 1950, she became the first Black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons. Seventeen years later, Dickens founded a teen clinic at University of Pennsylvania for school-age mothers. In her career, she regularly made it a priority to improve patient care in her specialty and empower female patients to speak up for their health. Dr. Dickens led extensive research into teen pregnancy and sexual health issues, and she used the results of her wide-ranging research to advise schools, parents, and health professionals on intervention strategies to lower the incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Dr. Dickens received numerous honors for her work on sexual health for young and adult women.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

First African American woman graduate nurse

Born to freed slaves in Boston, Mary Eliza Mahoney actively pursued a career as a nurse. After working at New England Hospital for Women and Children as a private-duty nurse for 15 years, Mahoney was admitted into the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. In 1879, she graduated as the first Black American to earn a professional nursing license. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The association later created the Mary Mahoney Award in her honor, to celebrate nurses who promote integration within their field. The award is still bestowed today by the American Nurses Association.

In addition to her pioneering efforts in nursing, Mahoney was also a women’s rights advocate and fought for the right to vote. After the passage of the 19th amendment, she voted in her first election at age 76.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)    

First African American woman to earn an M.D. degree         

Rebecca Lee Crumpler challenged the prejudice that prevented African Americans from pursuing careers in medicine to become the first African American woman in the United States to earn an M.D. degree, and the only black woman to graduate from the New England Female Medical College.

Born in Delaware, Rebecca Lee Crumpler later moved to Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse for 8 years prior to the opening of the first formal nursing school. In 1864, she graduated from New England Female Medical College, becoming the first Black woman in the country to earn a medical degree. Shortly after her graduation, and upon the conclusion of the Civil War, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia for several years to treat freed slaves who lacked medical care.

Dr. Crumpler was also one of the first Black physicians to publish a medical text, “A Book of Medical Disclosures”, which was released in 1883. The book is based on journal notes she kept during her years of medical practice.

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