Recognizing Five Black Women Who Paved The Way

At the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies, our team aspires to make cancer diagnosis, prevention, and treatment more accessible and more effective for women worldwide. We would not be successful in our endeavors without the work and research of so many scientists, engineers and physicians who have paved the way and continue to dedicate their lives towards providing accessible care.

This Black History Month, our team would like to share about some inspiring Black scientists, engineers and physicians.

In the 1920’s, Mary saw the need for something to stop menstrual blood from leaking onto clothing. After several years of experimenting with new ideas and working to afford filing a patent, Mary filed her first patent in 1957: the Sanitary Belt. This belt was adjustable and featured a moisture-proof napkin pocket that stopped the potential of leaking blood.

Mary’s patent, however, did not mean that her invention was accepted.

She wrote about her experience, “One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant; I saw houses, cars, and everything about to come my way.” A company representative drove to Kenner’s home outside of Washington D.C to discuss her product. “Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped. The representative went back to New York and informed me the company was no longer interested.” (1)

While Mary never received credit for her work on the Sanitary Belt, her research and creativity should not go unnoticed.

Rebecca Crumpler began her career in medicine in 1852, working as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts. A few years later, Rebecca was admitted to the New England Female Medical College, and in 1864 she became the first African American women in the United States to complete and earn an M.D.

Dr. Crumpler’s accomplishment was huge for the African American Community and for all women. In 1860, only 300 out of 54,543 physicians in the United States were women, and none of them were African-American. (1)

She would go on from medical school to practice in Boston, Massachusetts, Richmond, Virginia and Hyde Park, NY. Her book, A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts, was published by Cashman, Keating and Co., of Boston, in 1883.

Marie Maynard Daly working in her lab, ca. 1960. Archives of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Ted Burrows, photographer

Dr. Daly grew up in New York with a father who always aspired to become a scientist, but was unable due to financial constraints. She followed in his footsteps and made his dream a reality in 1942, when she received her Bachelors Degree in Chemistry from Queens College. Dr. Daly went on from Queens College to study at New York University, where she received a Masters Degree. She then spent a year tutoring chemistry students at Queens College and seeking funding before she enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Columbia University. At this time, she became the first African American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

Her research focused on high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

She found a strong correlation between high blood pressure and having high cholesterol levels in the blood, which was a groundbreaking discovery at that time. This discovery served as a foundation for future research into the causes of atherosclerosis and other high blood pressure-related diseases.

— Harvard University

Dr. Daly was additionally dedicated to opening doors for minority students in medical and science programs. She paved the way for a scholarship fund for African American science students at Queens College in honor of her father.

There are no surviving photos of Rebecca J. Cole

Rebecca Cole, one of the first Black women doctors in America, worked for 30 years as a physician and activist. Dr. Cole spent her life fighting against the prevailing idea of the late 19th century that disease and death are hereditary in Black people.

While not much is known about her childhood, we know that Cole attended the Institute For Colored Youth. After her graduation from the Institute, where she was awarded $15.00 for “excellence in classics,” Cole enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. When she graduated in 1867, Cole became the first black woman to graduate from the college and the second black woman physician in the U.S.

Demonstrating a life-long commitment to public health, Cole spent her years endlessly working as an advocate for black communities through various positions and projects. Some of these include:

  • Co-founding the Woman’s Directory, an organization that provided both medical and legal services to women while also working with public officials on behalf of women
  • Advocating for “Cubic Air Space Laws” that regulated housing, to avoid the cycle of overcrowding that led to disease in poor communities
  • Organizing, alongside two generations of black women activists the National Association of Colored Women in Washington, D.C.
  • Serving as the superintendent of the Government House for Children and Old Women, which provided medical and legal aid to the homeless
  • Serving as the head of house for a Home for the Homeless, where she worked until she passed away in 1922

Dr. Joycelyn Elders was the fifteenth Surgeon General of the United States, the first Black American and the second woman to hold this position.

Growing up as one of eight children in a poor farming family, Elders had to miss school during the harvest season, scrub floors to pay for her tuition to the all-black liberal arts Philander Smith College in Little Rock (despite also earning a scholarship), and rely on her siblings’ help to pay her bus fare.

It was during her time in college that she heard Edith Irby Jones, the first African American to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, speak at a sorority event. Elders was inspired by Jones, and decided that she too wanted to become a physician.

Elders achieved her goal and additionally became a professor of pediatrics. She continued her clinical practice while also publishing over 100 papers on pediatric endocrinology and advocating for her adolescent patients, specifically in matters of reproductive health.

When she was appointed as the head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987 by Governor Bill Clinton, she controversially campaigned for better sex education, eventually leading to Arkansas Legislature mandating a K-12 curriculum that included sex education, substance-abuse prevention, and programs to promote self-esteem. In 1993, when President Clinton appointed Dr. Elders U.S. Surgeon General, she continued to bring about change through progressive policies and “talking about difficult subjects.”

Innovate with passion, deliver with compassion. www.DukeGWHT.org