Jasmine Brown is still in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, but she has already published a book about medicine: Twice as Hard: The Stories of Black Women Who Fought to Become Physicians, from the Civil War to the 21st Century. It’s the culmination of research she started while a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. She noticed a lack of literature on Black female doctors, and was immediately struck by an oral history by Dr. May Chinn, one of Harlem’s first Black female doctors. Chinn’s story resonated with Brown, who, despite being the daughter of engineers, was often discouraged from pursuing a career in science.
“Growing up, people were telling me I’m not good enough—like I’m Black so that means I’m not smart and I won’t do well in school,” Brown says. “Recognizing how powerful it was for me to learn about these women, I wanted to give that hope to other Black girls, other Black people— really anybody who has been told for some reason that they’re not capable.”
Below are three pioneering Black female doctors profiled in Brown’s book.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Crumpler is considered the first Black woman physician in the U.S. She started out as a nurse but physicians she worked with encouraged her to go to medical school and wrote her recommendation letters. She graduated from the New England Female Medical College (now part of Boston University’s medical school) in 1864.
After graduation, she went down to Richmond, Virginia, to provide medical care for Black people who had just been freed from slavery. She faced many obstacles; as a Black woman, some white pharmacists wouldn’t honor her prescriptions. One doctor sneered, “The MD behind her name stands for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver.’”
She moved back to Boston, buying a house in Beacon Hill that also served as her medical office, seeing patients regardless of whether they could afford her care. She wrote A Book of Medical Discourses, designed to provide health advice fo Black women who couldn’t afford a doctor. Considered the first known medical book written by a Black woman, it covered topics like washing a newborn, treating burns, and managing measles.
Dr. May Chinn
Chinn was one of the first Black female physicians in Harlem—in addition to being a talented musician; she played piano with the famous Harlem Renaissance entertainer Paul Robeson. When she graduated from New York University’s School of Medicine in the 1920s, Black women didn’t get into residency programs, so she got a low-paying job as an apprentice to a doctor in Harlem.
“She did a lot of house calls, and she would provide care for people who have been turned away from the typical medical institutions,” says Brown. “There was even a period after Pearl Harbor when the medical institutions refused to see Asian patients, and she would go to their homes.”
Chinn would even help Howard University-trained Black surgeon Dr. Peter Marshall Murray perform surgery in patients’ homes, using the patient’s bed —or even an ironing board, if it was a small child—as the operating table. They would use patients’ ovens to sterilize surgical equipment. When she suspected older patients might have cancer, she took biopsies and snuck them to her white doctor classmates at what’s now Memorial Sloan-Kettering who would analyze the samples for her. The hospital eventually hired her and she ran clinics, supervising both white and Black physicians from 1945 until 1976.
Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston
Gaston was the first Black woman to direct a major public health agency, when she became the head of the Bureau of Primary Health Care at the United States Department of Health and Human Services in 1990.
In 1986, she published groundbreaking research on sickle cell anemia—a condition that predominantly affects Black Americans—finding that penicillin could be given prophylactically to prevent deadly infections. The study was the result of more than a decade of increased awareness of sickle cell anemia that dates back to 1971, when President Richard Nixon announced a new national health strategy to combat the condition. While some dismissed Nixon’s efforts as an attempt to win over more Black voters, the subsequent increase in federal grant monies helped doctors like Gaston do research that has increased patients’ lifespan. Gaston’s landmark study “led to national screening of the disease” after lobbying Capitol Hill, says Brown. Forty states went on to adopt sickle cell screening protocols for newborn babies.
At the Bureau of Primary Health Care, she oversaw care for immigrants, the homeless, public housing residents. Gaston rose up to the rank of assistant surgeon general by the time she retired in 2001.
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