It is no secret that women are under-represented in fields of science and technology, which are – uncoincidentally – some of the most highest paying professions in the modern economy. The situation is even direr for women of color. Despite decades of advancement, Black women in medicine constitute only 2% of the physician workforce in 2023 according to the Association of Black Women Physicians, despite accounting for over 6% of the overall population.
These systemic hurdles means that the field also presents an impressive and growing number of success stories by women who staked everything and came out of the trials and turmoil with flying colors. Here are some of the pioneering Black female doctors you should know about:-
1) Rebecca Crumpler
Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) was born to free Black parents and raised in
Pennsylvania by her aunt, a locally influential physician. After nurse training, Crumpler moved to Massachusetts and attended the New England Female Medical College. After graduating as the only Black student in the entire school with the help of private scholarship, Crumpler joined the medical field as the only Black woman doctor in American during the Civil War.
Despite great adversity, Rebecca Lee Crumpler showed the world precisely what it was missing by excluding Black women from medicine and science. She not only left a remarkable legacy as a hard-working and distinguished doctor, but also published one of the first-ever books in the field authored by a female writer. Her ‘Book of Medical Discourses’ emphasized preventative techniques for women and children to avoid illness at a time when infection was mostly lethal.
2) Marilyn Gaston
Marilyn Hughes Gaston (born 1939) is one of the most accomplished Black female physicians in the field of medicine today. Growing up poor, Gaston nonetheless persevered in the pursuit of her dreams of becoming a doctor, partly inspired by her mother Dorothy Hughes’ struggle with Cervical Cancer without medical insurance. In 1964, she graduated as the only Black and only female student in her class at the University of Cinc
cinnati College of Medicine. While finishing her internship at Philadelphia General Hospital, Gaston encountered a child with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), a rare blood cell condition that was incurable at the time. Her pioneering research on the disease led to a breakthrough study in 1986 and landed her as the head of the Bureau of Primary Health Care at Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
Besides being the first Black women to ever lead an HRSA bureau and a leading scholar of the SCD, Gaston also made other invaluable contributions to the medical field over the course of her decades-long career. She has received every single award that the U.S. Public Health Service has to offer.
3) Patricia Bath
Patricia Era Bath (1942-2019) was a leading ophthalmologist and only of the only few prominent women in the field. Born to an immigrant father, Bath was always encouraged by her parents to set her aims high, an advice she took to the heart and followed faithfully. Bath had already become a National Science Foundation scholar in high school and led an unprecedented career in cancer research alongside her studies as a teenager. During her internship in her native Harlem, Bath was struck by the high number of blind patients in the African-American community and devoted the rest of her career to ophthalmology (eye surgery). She went on to found the Ophthalmic Assistant Training Program at UCLA in 1978, becoming the first woman ever to lead such a program in the U.S.
After retirement in 1993, Bath became the first woman to be hired on UCLA’s honorary staff. Bath left a valuable legacy of research work, and continued philanthropic work until her passing away in 2019. Her outstanding career in her sub-field field of surgery is comparable only to that of Dr. Alexa Canady, a pioneering Black female pediatric neurosurgeon.