Physicians who changed the world by stepping outside of medicine

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published December 11, 2018

Key Takeaways

“The crisis manifested itself in water—and in the body of the most vulnerable among us, children who drank that water and ate meals cooked with that water, and babies who guzzled bottles of formula mixed with that water. The government tried hard to convince parents the water was fine—safe—when it wasn’t.”

This passage from the book What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, describes how high lead levels contaminated the drinking water of Flint, MI. After discovering elevated lead levels in the blood of her pediatric patients, “Dr. Mona” pushed for accountability and change. Her initial efforts were thwarted due to concerted attempts by the state government officials to discredit her as a sensationalist. Nevertheless, Dr. Mona persisted and led a movement to draw attention to a crisis that everyone is well aware of today.

Dr. Mona is one example of a physician who changed professional responsibilities to improve the world in a big way. Let’s take a look at Dr. Mona and four other physician paragons responsible for compassionate and global changes. Perhaps these physicians can inspire you to expand your job description and treat the world as a whole.

1. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha took on the Flint water crisis

Dr. Mona is a first-generation Iraqi-American pediatrician who was raised, educated, and trained in Michigan. After uncovering elevated levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water, she blew the whistle and disseminated her research among the national press. She then established the Flint Child Health and Development Fund, which has raised millions of dollars, and she directs the Hurley Children’s Hospital Public Health Initiative, which explores novel public health tools to benefit Flint’s children. In addition to her role as an activist, Dr. Mona is director of the pediatrics residency at Hurley Medical Center. Thanks to Dr. Mona’s efforts, countless Flint children avoided the dangers of lead poisoning—most notably, irreversible brain damage.

2. Dr. Mae C. Jemison is an out-of-this-world physician

Mae C. Jemison, MD, holds a rarefied distinction for a space traveler: She was the first female African American astronaut. Before that, she attained a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University and a medical degree from Cornell University. She worked as a general practitioner in California and volunteered with the Peace Corps before applying to NASA in 1987. While at NASA, Dr. Jemison performed launch support activities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, verified shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), and participated in Science Support Group activities. In 1992, Dr. Jemison became a science mission specialist on STS-47 Spacelab-J, a joint venture between the United States and Japan. On the mission, where she logged nearly 200 hours in space, Dr. Jemison conducted life science, material science, and bone cell research.

3. Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston changed public health policy for children

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD, is a pediatrician who overcame adversity and poverty to eventually become the first African American woman to direct a public health service bureau: The Bureau of Primary Health Care in the United States Department of Health and Human Services. She dedicated her life to serving the medically indigent, and in 1986 published a landmark study showing that long-term penicillin administration to children with sickle-cell disease prevented sepsis—a novel discovery. The study was so influential that Congress promoted nationwide screening for sickle-cell disease in babies. Furthermore, her research demonstrated how easy and effective it is to prevent complications of sickle-cell disease with early treatment. Consequently, early treatment of patients with sickle-cell disease became a central focus of the US Public Health Service.

4. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and the desegregation of medicine

Daniel Hale Williams, MD, performed the first successful open-heart surgery in 1893. His patient was stabbed in the chest with a knife, and lived another 20 years after the surgery. Two years before, Dr. Williams had established the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, which was the first African American owned hospital and the first interracial hospital in the United States. Because Dr. Williams was an African American practicing in the days of Jim Crow laws, he was not admitted to the American Medical Association. Instead, he co-founded the National Medical Association (NMA), which to this day serves as the voice of African American physicians and is the leading impetus for parity and justice in medicine and the eradication of health disparities. He was also the first African American admitted to the American College of Surgeons.

5. Dr. James Naismith invented one of the world’s most popular sports

Born in Canada, James Naismith, MD, attained degrees in religion, physical education, and medicine. While a teacher at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, MA, he was asked to develop an indoor game for winter to keep students in shape between football season and track and baseball seasons. He came up with basketball. Dr. Naismith wrote down the 13 rules of the game in an hour and initially used a soccer ball and a peach basket nailed at 10 feet for a goal. Graduates of the YMCA took the sport around the world and the sport evolved. “My pay has not been in dollars, but in satisfaction at giving something to the world that is of benefit to masses of people,” said Dr. Naismith.

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