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Partners of the Heart
The Film and More
Early Years
Pearl High
Living with Segregation
Pivotal Decisions
African American Medical Pioneers

For Teachers & Students

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African American Medical Pioneers

Vivien Thomas followed in the footsteps of other African Americans who made advances in medicine and helped to improve people's lives. Explore the profiles of six pioneers who held themselves to a standard of excellence, although the odds were stacked against them.

Charles Drew
Plasma researcher

Dr. Drew, physician, researcher, and surgeon, forged a new understanding of blood plasma that allowed blood to be stored for transfusions. As World War II began, Drew received a staggering telegram request: "Secure 5,000 ampules of dried plasma for transfusion." That was more than the total world supply. Drew met that challenge and found himself at the head of the Red Cross blood bank -- and up against a narrow-minded policy of segregating blood supplies based on a donor's race.

Daniel Hale Williams
First successful open heart surgery

Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first black-owned hospital in America. He is also credited with the world's first successful heart surgery, conducted in Chicago in 1893. On a summer night, a young man arrived at Provident with a stab wound to the heart. When the patient went into shock, Dr. Williams decided to operate.

Mary Eliza Mahoney
First African American nurse

Ms. Mahoney was the first black professional nurse in America. Known for her calm and quiet skill, she nonetheless mounted the stage at a 1909 nursing conference in Boston to call for direct action to correct the stark inequalities faced by African American nurses.

James McCune Smith
First American to earn a medical degree

Dr. Smith was the first African American to earn a medical degree and practice medicine in the United States. He was also the first to own and operate a pharmacy, in New York City. At the age of 25, just returned from medical school in Scotland, Dr. Smith rose at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society and spoke out against slavery, telling the crowd of abolitionist support in Europe.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler
First African American woman to earn a medical degree

Dr. Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree. She devoted her life to improving health in the black community through research and clinic work. When the Civil War ended, she realized that whole communities of newly-freed blacks in the South would urgently need medical care. So she left her Boston home and medical practice and moved to Richmond.

William Augustus Hinton
Internationally renowned researcher and the first black doctor to teach at Harvard

Dr. Hinton, the son of former slaves, became the first black professor at Harvard Medical School and gained an international reputation for his medical research. As a young man, he boldly declined the offer of a Harvard medical scholarship reserved for African American students in order to compete for a scholarship open to students of all races.

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