Countless Black women and non-binary folks have helped to advance healthcare and medical innovation in the United States.
We’re honoring nine, incomparable and inspiring women who dedicated their lives to service and bettering the lives of countless people during their lifetimes and into the future. Read about them below.
1. Dr. May Edward Chinn, MD
Cancer researcher who helped develop the Pap Smear
Dr. Chinn achieved many firsts throughout her distinguished career and life.
She was the first African American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital School of Medicine (now NYU), the first African American woman to intern at Harlem Hospital, and the first woman to be an emergency first responder that traveled with ambulances. Her work with cancer focused on early detection through screenings and family history. On top of it all, she co-founded a society to support Black women seeking to attend medical school.
2. Ruth Ella Moore, Ph.D.
First African American woman in the US to get a Ph.D. in natural sciences
A pioneering bacteriologist and microbiologist, Ruth Ella Moore’s research made significant contributions to limiting the spread of tuberculosis, illuminating the prominence of certain blood types in African Americans, uncovering bacterial predispositions to dental cavities, and clarifying the relationship between antibiotics and the gut microbiome.
In addition to her many academic and scientific achievements, Moore was a highly accomplished seamstress.
3. Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens, MD
First African American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons
A legendary OB-GYN, Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens, dedicated her life and career to improving health outcomes for Black women and women living in very low-income communities.
Along with practicing medicine, Helen taught radical sexual health education for women, focusing on reducing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
4. Dr. Jane Cook Wright, MD
First woman president of the New York Cancer Society
Oncologist Dr. Jane Cook Wright achieved extraordinary accomplishments throughout her life. She is best known for creating new methods for delivering chemotherapy to patients.
In academia, she became the first African American woman to be associate dean of a medical school as well as director of Cancer Chemotherapy Research at New York University Medical Center.
She was also a founding member of the globally recognized American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
5. Henrietta Lacks
She gave us “HeLa” cells, the first immortalized cell line used to aid the development of numerous breakthroughs in modern medicine and science
Described by many as one of, if not the most important, figures in modern medicine, Henrietta Lacks lost her life to ovarian cancer at 31.
Her cells, known today as “HeLa” cells, have been used for 60+ years to facilitate some of the most significant scientific discoveries, from studying the human genome to the behavior of cancer cells to vaccine development.
Bioethics plays a major role in Henrietta’s story as her cells were originally biopsied and used by researchers without her or her family’s consent.
6. Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD
First African American woman to direct a Public Health Service Bureau
Born into poverty, Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston grew up with a personal understanding how a lack of healthcare and resources could impact one's quality of life. In turn, she committed her career to improving healthcare and outcomes for minority and low-income communities.
One of her most notable achievements is the contribution she made to Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) research. Her determination to make early treatment of SCD at birth routine practice led to its policy adoption by the U.S. Public Health Service, saving countless lives.
7. Joan Y. Reede, MD, MS, MPH, MBA
First Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School
A multi-hyphenate and monumental figure in today’s medical community, Dr. Reede has created and implemented countless initiatives and programs focused on supporting women and minority students, faculty, scientists, researchers, and physicians within Massachusetts.
She also founded the Biomedical Science Careers Program (BSCP) which provides mentorship for underrepresented students and professionals in biomedical and health sciences.
8. Kizzmekia S. Corbett, Ph.D
Viral Immunologist and Infectious Disease Specialist whose research led to the development of the COVID-19 vaccine
At only 37 years old, Kizzmekia Corbett has accomplished more than many people dream of achieving in a lifetime.
While working at the National Institute of Health (NIH), Corbett led the team whose research on coronaviruses enabled the swift development of the technology used in the COVID-19 vaccines.
Specifically, she worked closely with Moderna to develop mRNA-1273 technology which has saved millions of lives.
9. Evelyn Carmon Nicol
First person to isolate Herpes Zoster (Shingles) virus
Throughout her impressive career, immunologist and microbiologist Evelyn Carmon Nicol worked on numerous diseases from polio to leukemia to HIV. Additionally, she was one of the first African American women to get a patent for molecular biology.
Outside of her many scientific accomplishments, Evelyn was an advocate for anti-discriminatory and fair hiring practices, having faced discrimination and racism in the workplace herself.