4 Black female physicians who changed the face of medicine

By Samar Mahmoud, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published March 10, 2022

Key Takeaways

Women have made significant strides in the field of medicine, often in the face of insurmountable odds. Approximately half of medical school graduates are women, but there is an evident gender gap when it comes to positions of leadership in medicine. For instance, only 25% of full professors and only 18% of department chairs are women, according to a report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2020.

The numbers are even more grim for women of color, given that the ranks of female faculty members from under-represented backgrounds have only increased by 1 percentage point in the past decade. 

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are four Black female trailblazers who persevered, despite facing obstacles at every turn, to put their mark on the field of medicine and pave the way for women for generations to come. 

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) 

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler overcame widespread bias against women in medicine as well as deeply ingrained prejudice against African Americans to become the first African American woman in the US to formally graduate with a medical degree in 1864.  

Dr. Crumpler was born in 1831 in Delaware. She was raised by her aunt in Pennsylvania, who became her early inspiration to pursue a career in medicine by often caring for sick neighbors. In the 1850s, Dr. Crumpler moved to Massachusetts, where she was a nurse for eight years before being accepted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860. 

After graduating from medical school, Dr. Crumpler remained in Boston to practice medicine for some time. At the end of the Civil War, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, and joined other Black physicians in caring for freed slaves who did not have any other access to medical care.

Despite facing intense racism following the war in the South, she remained in Virginia for a number of years before eventually returning to Boston. In 1883, she published a book about her experiences, titled Book of Medical Discourses. 

In academic medicine, only 25% of full professors and only 18% of department chairs are women, according to a report published by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2020.

Dr. Mildred Jefferson (1926-2010)

Dr. Mildred Jefferson became the first Black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951. Born in Pittsburg, Texas, in 1926 as an only child, Dr. Jefferson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Texas College and a master’s degree from Tufts University. 

After graduating from Harvard, Dr. Jefferson would go on to accomplish many firsts, becoming the first female surgical intern at Boston City Hospital, the first female general surgeon at Boston University Medical Center, and the first woman to be elected to the Boston Surgical Society. She later became a professor of surgery at Boston University Medical Center. 

Beginning in the 1970s, Dr. Jefferon was heavily involved in the right-to-life movement. She founded the Massachusetts Citizens for Life and the National Right to Life Committee, serving three terms as president of the latter. She was a fervent pro-life supporter, devoting much time as a board of more than 30 organizations opposing abortion. 

Dr. Jefferson was active in the Republican party and even ran for office multiple times, although she was not successful in her political aspirations. Despite this, she is remembered as a trailblazer for women and has been awarded honorary degrees for her pioneering work for social justice in the field of medicine by 28 universities and colleges in the US. 

Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston (1939 - )

In 1990, Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston was named Director of the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the US Health Resources and Services Administration, becoming the first African American woman to lead a public health service bureau. During her time as director, she had a particular interest in improving services for underserved populations. 

Dr. Gaston knew she wanted to pursue a career in medicine by the time she was 9 years old. She studied zoology at Miami University, and after being encouraged by a physician mentor, she enrolled at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. When she started medical school, she was one of only six women enrolled and the only Black woman in her year. 

While doing an internship at Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964, Dr. Gaston became interested in sickle cell disease in children. In 1986, she published a study detailing the efficacy of giving children with sickle cell disease long-term penicillin treatment to prevent septic infections.

This groundbreaking study demonstrated that babies should be screened for sickle cell disease at birth and be given prophylactic penicillin right away. The study led to legislation from Congress that promoted and funded sickle cell disease screening programs across the US.

Dr. Gaston’s recommendations for newborn screening and early treatment of sickle cell disease went on to become a central tenet of US public health policies. She was subsequently appointed Deputy Branch Chief of the NIH’s Sickle Cell Disease Branch.

Dr. Gaston’s research as well as her life-long commitment to bettering the lives of underserved communities has been recognized by many awards. In addition to receiving the National Medical Association’s most prestigious honor, the NMA Scroll of Merit, she has been honored with every award given by the Public Health Service. 

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013)

In 1967, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was named Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean at New York Medical College, becoming the first African American woman to be named associate dean of a nationally recognized medical institution. 

Born in New York City in 1919, Dr. Wright was the oldest of two daughters born to Corrine and Louis Wright. Dr. Wright’s father was a trailblazer in his own right, being one of the first Black graduates of Harvard Medical School, the first Black doctor on staff at a municipal hospital in New York City, and the city’s first Black police surgeon. He established the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital.

Dr. Wright graduated from New York Medical College in 1945. Soon after, she joined her father at Harlem Hospital, collaborating with him on early work with chemotherapy. When he died in 1952, she became head of the Cancer Research Foundation. In 1955, she became Associate Professor of surgical research at New York University and Director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center. 

In 1964, she was appointed by President Johnson to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. Following her final appointments at New York Medical College in 1967, she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society in 1971.

During her 40-year career, Dr. Wright published numerous papers on cancer chemotherapy and led cancer researchers on educational missions to Africa, China, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. She retired in 1987. 

What this means for you

In honor of Women’s History month, we, as a medical community, have the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the numerous contributions Black women have made to the field of medicine, ranging from pioneering studies on sickle cell disease to effecting change through public policy. We recognize their bravery and perseverance in the face of adversity.

However, it is equally important to recognize that, while these women have made significant strides toward inclusion and equality of Black women in medicine, more work remains to be done. Read more about Women's History Month.


  1. Dr. Jane Cooke Wright. NIH. June 3, 2015.

  2. Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston. NIH. June 3, 2015. 

  3. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. U.S. National Park Service. April 12, 2021.

  4. Mildred Fay Jefferson, PhD: First Black female physician to graduate from Harvard. The Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation. February 20, 2020. 

  5.  State of Women in Academic Medicine 2018-2019: Exploring Pathways to Equity. Association of American Medical Colleges. 2020.

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