Black History Month 2020: Honoring Leaders in Health and Medicine

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The vast majority of medical education revolves around white, mainly male, entirely Western figures and their contributions to accepted medical practices. Because knowledge of medical pioneers of color is woefully lacking, MedTruth is recognizing leaders in health and medicine during Black History Month 2020.

Joycelyn Elders

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Dr. Joycelyn Elders is the first woman of color to head the U.S. Public Health Service. She is also the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology. Elders gained her inspiration as a college freshman when she heard a speech given by Dr. Edith Irby Jones, the first black student to be accepted at the University of Arkansas Medical School and the first black student to attend racially mixed classes.

Elders, the eldest of eight children, was raised in a rural and segregated area of Arkansas. Growing up working in the cotton fields, she would often miss school between September to December during harvest time.

In 1967, she earned a degree in biochemistry from the University of Arkansas and joined the faculty, eventually becoming a full professor in 1976.

In 1993, Elders was appointed Surgeon General by President Clinton, which was controversial due to her outspokenness about sex education. While in this position, Elders prioritized the advocation of birth control, counseling and sex education to reduce teen pregnancy.

She also advanced the availability in HIV testing, breast cancer screenings and 24-hour care for elderly and terminally-ill patients. In 1994, Clinton asked Elders to resign due to her progressive teachings in sex education (she encouraged masturbation and handed out condoms to students). In the documentary, Sticky: A (Self) Love Story, Elders says, “We in America can’t talk about sex. We can do it. But we can’t talk about it.”

She was even an early advocate for drug legalization. In short, the religious right was shaking in their boots. She famously once said, “I want every child that’s born in the world to be planned and wanted.” Elders is a progressive sex educator who, to this day, remains an advocate for reproductive health and sexual rights.

“The best contraceptive in the world is a good education.”

Charles DeWitt Watts

Dr. Charles DeWitt Watts was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His interest in biology started while working with the butcher in his parents’ store. He earned a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, and it was here that his biology professor, Samuel Nabrit, convinced him to pursue a career in medicine.

After graduating from Howard University College of Medicine in 1943, Watts completed a surgical residency at Freedman’s Hospital. He and his wife moved to Durham, North Carolina in 1950, where he became the first African American to be board certified in surgery in the state.

Watts was the chief of surgery at Lincoln Hospital, which was one of the few hospitals that served blacks and allowed black physicians to perform surgery. When Lincoln Hospital was slated to close, Watts took the opportunity to convert the facilities into the Lincoln Community Health Center to treat the underserved, low-income population in Durham. It still operates today, providing services including pediatrics, family medicine, behavioral health and dentistry.

For 28 years, Watts served as the vice president and medical director of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which remains the largest black-owned insurer in the country. Watts pioneered an actuarial medicine initiative that made public health a major company focus.

Watts was a tireless advocate for underserved populations. He also successfully lobbied the North Carolina state medical board to recognize black surgical residents, a historic feat at a time where nationwide, many hospitals and clinics were segregated, and black surgeons were often barred from practicing medicine.

Watts left a lasting legacy for black and other minority medical students and residents around the nation, and his work in North Carolina continues to help thousands of families access the care they need.

Quick Fact: In 1950, Charles DeWitt Watts opened a clinic to provide access to medical services for the poor.

Mae Jemison

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Mae Jemison has an impressive number of titles, including engineer, doctor, Peace Corps medical officer and the first black female astronaut.

Jemison graduated high school at age 16 and studied chemical engineering at Stanford University, attended medical school at Cornell and went on to practice general medicine. She served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps and then decided to apply to the NASA astronaut program. Jemison became the first black woman in space in 1992 aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

After six years with NASA, Jemison launched a new career in consulting, starting her own company The Jemison Group, which encourages science, technology and social change. Additional occupations include teaching at Dartmouth and directing the Jemison Institute for Advancing Technology in Developing Countries, as well as starting an international science camp for high schoolers and acting in Star Trek.

Jemison has been inducted into the National Medical Association Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame, among other accolades. Besides her many accomplishments in science and medicine, Jemison was head of the Black Students Union at Stanford, is fluent in four languages and grew up choreographing and performing dance.

Now, Jemison is the leader of the 100 Year Starship project, with the goal to bring humans outside our solar system within this century, a program through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“There is science in dance and art in science.”

Emmett Chappelle

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Emmett W. Chappelle was born on Oct. 24, 1925, in Phoenix, Arizona. He was the recipient of 14 U.S. patents for inventions related to medicine, food science and biochemistry and is mostly remembered as the scientist who discovered the chemistry of bioluminescence.

In 1942, after finishing high school, Chappelle was drafted into the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program. In the army, he pursued engineering courses before being reassigned to the 92nd Infantry Division until the end of the war.

In 1958, Chappelle moved to Baltimore, Maryland and joined the Research Institute for Advanced Studies studying single-celled organisms and photosynthesis. This research helped shape knowledge of medical breathing devices and the creation of oxygen supply systems utilized by astronauts and interstellar research.

Eight years later, Chappelle began work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. His work pioneered methods to develop the components in all cellular material. Chappelle also developed techniques for the detection of bacteria in bodily fluids, water and food. This research aided NASA scientists developing methods to remove soil from Mars in the Viking program.

Chappelle’s most famous innovation was his discovery of the chemical composition of bioluminescence. This allowed scientists to detect bacteria in water by measuring the light emitted. Chappelle himself demonstrated how satellites can measure luminescence to monitor agricultural health, enhancing food production around the world.

Chappelle furthered his bioluminescence research, developing techniques for detecting adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source of organic life. Chappelle’s process not only helped measure life on a microbial level, but it has also been hailed as a way to potentially identify extraterrestrial life.

Emmet Chappelle died on Oct. 14, 2019, as a distinguished member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and a vital contributor to man’s progress on Earth and beyond.

Quick Fact: Emmett Chappelle has 14 U.S. patents for inventions related to medicine, food science and biochemistry.

Patrice Harris

In June 2019, Atlanta psychiatrist Dr. Patrice Harris became the first black woman elected president of the prestigious American Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of physicians and medical students. Harris brings a diverse background as a practicing psychiatrist, public health administrator, medical society lobbyist, patient advocate and mentor.

Harris will continue to spearhead the AMA’s efforts to stem the opioid crisis as chair of the AMA’s opioid task force, which she has led since its launch in 2014.

In 2016, Harris was the first African-American woman elected chair of the AMA’s Board of Trustees, where she served since 2011. She has served as chair of the AMA Council on Legislation and co-chair of the AMA Women Physicians Congress.

A distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Harris has held positions of leadership with the APA, the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association, the Medical Association of Georgia, The Big Cities Health Coalition and was the founding president of the Georgia Psychiatry Political Action Committee.

Harris is also an academic, with appointments as adjunct assistant professor at Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and adjunct clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Morehouse School of Medicine.

In addition to her private practice, Harris consults with organizations on health services delivery and emerging trends in healthcare policy and practice.

As past director of Health Services for Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, Harris oversaw a wide range of county public safety, behavioral health, and primary care treatment and prevention services.

A native of Bluefield, W. Va., Harris grew up at a time when few women of color were encouraged to enter medicine. Bucking the odds, Harris earned a bachelor’s in psychology, a master’s in counseling and ultimately her 1992 medical degree from the University of West Virginia. Harris moved to Atlanta where she completed her psychiatry residency and fellowships in child and adolescent psychiatry and forensic psychiatry at the Emory University School of Medicine.

“I hope to be tangible evidence for young girls and young boys from communities of color that you can aspire to be a physician. Not only that, you can aspire to be a leader in organized medicine.”

By MedTruth Editors

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MedTruth is a digital magazine reporting on health, safety and justice. Join the revolution today at https://medtruth.com/.

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