Black History Month: Pioneers in Healthcare

William Augustus Hinton (1883-1959)

Born to freed slaves, William Augustus Hinton began his education at the University of Kansas. He went on to graduate with honors from Harvard Medical School in 1912.

After graduation, Hinton began work at the Wassermann Laboratory at Harvard, and by 1915 he had become director of the lab. The lab was the official lab for the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health. In 1916, he also assumed the job of chief of the Boston Dispensary’s laboratory department, where he created a program to train women as lab technicians, helping to open the profession to women.

His race made it difficult for him to secure a surgical residency, but he eventually became the first Black professor at Harvard Medical School, and his research as a bacteriologist and pathologist gained him international recognition.

For most of his research career, Hinton worked on laboratory tests designed to improve the diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases. In 1927, he developed a test – later known as the Hinton test – for diagnosing syphilis. It was easier, less expensive, and more accurate than previous methods, and in 1934 was adopted by the United States Public Health Service as the standard procedure for diagnosing syphilis.

As a professor, Hinton taught preventative medicine and hygiene at Harvard for 27 years. Hinton also worked as a special consultant to the U.S. Public Health Service and taught at Tufts University and Simmons College.

Louis T. Wright (1891-1952)

Louis Tompkins Wright was medical researcher, war hero and political activist, who was born to former slaves in La Grange, Georgia. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Atlanta’s Clark University in 1911 and a medical degree from Harvard University Medical School in 1915, graduating fourth in his class. 

After his graduation from Harvard, Wright received training at Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital. He then returned to his home state of Georgia and helped found Atlanta’s NAACP chapter. While serving in World War I, Wright developed the intradermal injection vaccination technique.

He resumed his medical career after his service, and in 1919, Wright became the first Black physician hired at Harlem Hospital in New York City, eventually becoming the director of surgery there. Wright continued to serve on the staff of Harlem Hospital until 1949 in various capacities, including president of its medical board. Wright headed the team that first used Aureomycin, and in1948 he received recognition as the first physician to research the use of Aureomycin as a treatment for humans. He became an expert in the treatment of head injuries and introduced the intradermal method of vaccination. Wright also founded the cancer research center at Harlem Hospital known as the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center.

His daughter Dr. Jane Wright followed in his footsteps, having a distinguished career as professor of surgery, head of the cancer chemotherapy department, and associate dean at New York Medical College, achieving the distinction of the highest ranked African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution.

Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950)

Charles Richard Drew was a physician, researcher and surgeon who is most known today for his revolutionary work with blood plasma, and has been called the “father of blood banking”.

Drew headed the Blood for Britain project during World War II, which implemented his blood storage and transfusion techniques. His findings allowed blood storage for transfusions that saved many thousands of lives.

Drew’s research on blood transfusions followed the discovery that human blood could be categorized into four main types – A, B, AB, O. Drew received his medical degree and Master of Surgery degree at McGill, and completed his residency at Montreal General Hospital. He returned to Washington, D.C. and he began teaching at Howard University’s medical school. In 1938, he accepted a fellowship to continue his blood research at Columbia University. There, Drew developed a method for processing and storing blood plasma that allowed it to be dehydrated, shipped great distances, and then reconstituted just before transfusions. This was a great breakthrough. Before then, unprocessed blood was very perishable and would become unusable after about a week.

Early in World War II, Drew was asked to send 5,000 ampules of dried plasma to Britain for wartime transfusions. “Work immediately and follow this by equal quantity in three to four weeks,” the cable said. It was a shocking request: there was not that much plasma in the whole world. But Drew took the challenge and he successfully led the “Blood for Britain” project as Nazi Germany’s air assault on Britain reached its height.

Drew became director for the blood bank of the American Red Cross. He organized the largest blood drive ever, involving 100,000 donors, for the U.S. Army and Navy. Drew was infuriated when the military ordered the Red Cross to label the blood with each donor’s race and to refuse African American donors. Drew resigned in protest when the government continued to segregate blood banks.

Drew resumed teaching at Howard and became chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital. In 1943, he became the first black surgeon to be an examiner for the American Board of Surgery. Later, he was elected to the International College of Surgeons, and traveled through post-war Europe to assess hospitals as an advisor to the U.S. Surgeon General. Drew died in a car accident in March 1950 while driving to a medical meeting at the Tuskegee Institute.

Drew left a legacy of life-saving techniques and teaching, and many of his students went on to become nationally prominent physicians.

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