It was just a few months ago that Tamika Cross, MD, a Black woman, was allegedly
denied the chance to help a fellow passenger on a Delta flight. Just two days after that — still in the year 2016 — we heard a very similar story from Ashley Denmark, another Black doctor who wasn't allowed to help a sick passenger.
It's infuriating, but unfortunately not surprising, that women of color have historically faced significant challenges in pursuing careers in science and medicine. But, as Dr. Cross and Dr. Denmark's stories show, many of those challenges persist: Black women still make up
only 2% of doctors in the U.S., and fewer than 7% of people who received doctorate degrees in the U.S. in 2010 were Black women. When they do get the chance to make waves, their accomplishments are still less likely to be recognized.
That's why we're celebrating the contributions of those who pioneered, innovated, and created in spite of the discrimination they faced. Their work serves as a reminder of both the difficulties women of color have had to face to get those opportunities — and the amazing things they can do when they get 'em. For example, Jane Cooke Wright, MD, developed a non-surgical way to fight tumors. Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD, studied internalized messages of racism among Black children. Patricia Bath, MD, created an entirely new discipline of ophthalmology focused on public health.
And, seriously, that's just the beginning. Ahead, meet 12 women of color who pushed medicine, science, and society forward.
Alice Ball. Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii at Manoa Library.
Alice Ball (1892 - 1916) Born in 1892, Ball became the first woman to graduate from what would become the University of Hawaii with a master's degree in science. She was clearly a talented chemist, especially interested in using oil from the chaulmoogra tree as a potential cure for leprosy. Although it had been used topically to treat many conditions for hundreds of years, she suspected it would be more effective if it could be injected — and she was right. After becoming an instructor at the university (the first Black woman to hold such a position), she isolated compounds from the oil for the first time that allowed it to be made into an injectable drug. It was then used as a leprosy treatment until the 1940s when other drugs were developed. Unfortunately, Ball died in 1916 and was, therefore, unable to witness the impact her work had on the medical field. In 2000, the University of Hawaii honored Ball with a bronze plaque mounted next to the campus' only chaulmoogra tree.
Photo: Arty Pomerantz/New York Post Archives/NYP Holdings, Inc./Getty Images.
Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD (1917 - ) Mamie Phipps Clark and her husband, Kenneth, worked closely together on some of the first and most crucial psychology research into our implicit racial biases. They were the first two Black people to earn doctoral degrees in psychology from Columbia University, and they went on to found the Northside Center for Child Development, the first center offering psychological guidance and casework for children in Harlem. Some of their most influential work — cited in the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case — was the "doll test." For this study, they gave children four dolls that were identical except for their skin color. They asked the kids which one they liked best and which ones they identified with. A majority of the children, regardless of their own skin color, preferred the dolls with light skin and associated more positive traits with it. But the Black children said the darker-skinned dolls looked like them and were "bad." This work provided evidence that African-American kids internalized negative messages about themselves from a very early age — and that continued segregation enforced those ideas.
Photo: NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.
Katherine Johnson (1918 - ) One of NASA's "human computers," Johnson says she grew up counting everything. That love for counting quickly turned into serious math skills as Johnson breezed her way through math classes. At just 18 she graduated with degrees in mathematics and French from West Virginia State College (now University). In 1952, Johnson started working for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) and impressed her supervisors with both her talent and her inquisitiveness. Then, in 1958, NACA was folded into NASA, and Johnson was part of the team charged with calculating the way to send a human to space and back. Her work was instrumental in sending the first American, Alan Shepard, into space in 1961. NASA also counted on her calculations to send John Glenn into orbit in 1962 and Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. In 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the National Medal of Freedom. In 2016, NASA opened the $30 million Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. And then, of course, there was Hidden Figures, the blockbuster 2016 film based partly on Johnson's life.
Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.
Jane Cooke Wright, MD (1919 - 2013) After earning her medical degree in 1945 from New York Medical College, Dr. Wright went on to do pioneering work in cancer treatment. In 1949, she took a position at Harlem Hospital, where her father was the director of the Cancer Research Foundation. After his death in 1952, she took his position at just 33. She was among the first doctors to work with cancer-fighting compounds, including current mainstay methotrexate, for the treatment of breast and skin cancers. She even innovated a more precise way to deliver drugs to tumors in specific parts of the body (which would otherwise require surgery), leading some to call her the "mother of chemotherapy." On top of all that, Dr. Wright helped develop better ways to study cancer and hear disease: As part of the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke, she helped put together a report that led the government to create national centers for those illnesses across the country.
Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.
Annie Easley (1933 - 2011) Easley started working as a "human computer" at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) in 1955. By the 1970s, NACA had become NASA, and actual computers were replacing human computers. S0 Easley decided to pursue a mathematics degree and learned how to code. She continued to do crucial work to support NASA's various space programs. That included working on software for the high-energy Centaur booster rocket, which helps launch spacecrafts. These were used on the Viking, Voyager, and Cassini crafts, and variants of the Centaur are still used today.
Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images.
Patricia Bath, MD (1942 - ) Today, Dr. Bath is known as a pioneer of ophthalmology, the study and treatment of eye issues. But her innovative spirit made itself known very early on — seriously, she was winning awards for her research at the age of 16! After receiving her medical degree with honors from Howard University in 1968, she interned at Harlem Hospital and did her fellowship at Columbia University. During those years, she noticed that the majority of patients in the eye clinic at Harlem Hospital were either blind or had severe eye issues, while those at Columbia University's eye clinic were very rarely blind. That inspired her to take on a retrospective study which showed that, indeed, the rate of blindness in Black communities was nearly double that of white communities. This discovery led her to found the discipline of community ophthalmology, which employs the principles of public health to improve eye care for underserved communities. In 1983, Dr. Bath became the first woman to be appointed to chair an ophthalmology program in the U.S. (at Drew/UCLA). And in 1986, she invented a new tool for cataract surgery called the Laserphaco Probe.
Photo: Time Life Pictures/NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.
Mae Jemison, MD (1956 - ) Before she was flying in space, Dr. Jemison first studied chemical engineering at Stanford University. She then received her medical degree from Cornell University Medical College in 1981. After spending a few years working as a general practitioner and Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia, Dr. Jemison switched her focus to becoming an astronaut. She applied for NASA's astronaut program in 1986 and, in 1987, was one of 15 people chosen out of about 2,000. That made her the first African-American woman to be admitted to the program. And in September of 1992, she also became the first African-American woman in space (aboard the space shuttle Endeavor). She was appointed the science mission specialist, meaning she was responsible for conducting experiments while in space. She resigned from NASA in 1993, accepted a teaching position at Dartmouth University, and founded a company that develops and markets real-world applications for technology.
Photo: Courtesy of Alexa I. Canady, M.D.
Alexa Canady, MD (1950 - ) The first Black woman to become a neurosurgeon, Dr. Canady actually started out as a mathematics major at the University of Michigan. In fact, she almost dropped out after what she called a "crisis of confidence." But luckily, she instead started working in a genetics lab at her school through a summer research program — and fell in love with medicine. She ended up graduating in 1971 with a degree in zoology, got her medical degree in 1975, and became certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery in 1984. Dr. Canady went on to become the chief of neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan in 1987, earn two honorary degrees, and many, many awards for her patient-centered approach to her work.
hoto: KORT DUCE/AFP/Getty Images.
Jocelyn Elders, MD (1933 - ) As the National Institutes of Health put it in their biography of Dr. Elders, she "grew up in a rural, segregated, poverty-stricken pocket of Arkansas." Although she was a biology and chemistry whiz in high school, she faced significant barriers in pursuing those areas. But after seeing a talk by Edith Irby Jones, MD, the first African American to graduate from the University of Arkansas Medical School, she was inspired to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. After graduating from college, she spent three years in the Army and was trained as a physical therapist. Elders went on to earn her medical degree at the University of Arkansas Medical School in 1960. Her research focused on adolescent health issues, especially sexual development and diabetes. And, in 1987, then-Governor Bill Clinton appointed her to lead the Arkansas Health Department. Under her guidance, the state saw vast improvements in screenings for childhood illnesses and vaccinations. Then, in 1993, President Clinton appointed her to be Surgeon General — the second woman and first African American to hold the position — where she was an outspoken advocate for health care reform and sex education.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845 - 1926) Although she wasn't the first Black nurse in the U.S., Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first to be professionally certified to do her work, paving the way for others to get the same education and recognition. She worked for the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years before being accepted into the school's program — and Mahoney was one of just four students (out of 42) to graduate the following year. After graduating, she began working as a private-duty nurse for families across the Northeast. But she continued to work to help other Black women gain prominence in the field. Mahoney was one of the first Black women to join the brand-new American Nurses Association (ANA). And when the ANA proved hesitant in admitting other Black members, Mahoney supported and gave the welcoming address at the first convention of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
Photo: Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania University Archives.
Helen Octavia Dickens, MD (1909 - 2001) Before Dr. Dickens became the first African-American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons, she was the first African-American woman to become a board-certified OB/Gyn in Philadelphia. Throughout her career, she was particularly interested in educating young women and helping them feel empowered about their sexual health. Her work surveyed the needs of pregnant teens, increased cervical cancer screening, and informed programs that helped lower the rate of STIs in Philadelphia. And in 1967, she founded the Teen Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, which provided prenatal care, therapy, and other services to young mothers. Today, the university operates the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women, which continues Dr. Dickens' aims of providing care for women.
Photo: Courtesy of Cashman, Keating & Co. Printers.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831 - 1895) Unfortunately, many of the details of Dr. Crumpler's life have been lost. Plus, there aren't any verifiable images of her out there. But we do know that Dr. Cumpler was the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. And, thanks to the introduction to her Book of Medical Discourses, which she published in 1883, we can learn a little bit more about her life: Raised by an aunt who took care of her sick neighbors, Dr. Crumpler learned early on that she enjoyed caring for the sick. Eventually, she worked as a nurse for eight years under several different doctors. They wrote letters commending her work to the faculty of the New England Female Medical College. Four years later, in 1864, she graduated with her MD. After graduating, Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine for a short time in Boston. Then she made her way to Richmond, VA shortly after the end of the Civil War, where she became adept at treating women and children. She also spent time caring for freed slaves who would otherwise not have gotten any medical care. She eventually moved back to Boston and stopped actively practicing by 1880. Her 1883 book serves as a collection of notes she took throughout her career.