African American Innovators: “Where There is No Vision, There is No Hope.”

African-Americans have made crucially important advancements in the medical field since the early days of our history – many of them were innovators in the fields of cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery. While this isn’t a full list, in honor of Heart Month and Black History Month, we are highlighting just a few of these amazing people and their incredible contributions to medicine, science, and CHD care.

  • James McCune Smith (1813-1865)
    • Born into slavery in 1813, James McCune Smith decided as a young man he wanted to be a doctor and applied to several American colleges of medicine, where he was denied admission due to his race. He attended medical school at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and returned to New York City in 1837 to open his own medical office – making him the first African American doctor to own his own practice. He is also believed to be the first black physician to publish articles in U.S. medical journals.

  • Rebecca Crumpler, MD (1833-1895)
    • She worked as a nurse for 10 years (inspired by her aunt who was the caretaker for many of their friends and loved ones) before attending the New England Female Medical College in Boston. She graduated in 1864 – making her the first African American woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. She devoted her life to working to improve the health of women and children – even writing and publishing a medical textbook which is believed to be the first medical text written and published by an African American author.  

  • Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
    • The first African-American professional nurse in America, one of just four students who graduated from the New England Hospital’s nursing school in 1879 (the nation’s first professional nursing program). She became one of the first black members of the group that eventually became the American Nurses Association and was vocal about the inequalities in nursing education and issues related to women’s equality and right to vote.

Daniel Hale Williams, MD

  • Daniel Hale Williams, MD (1856-1931)
    • One of Chicago’s first African American physicians who went on to found the first black-owned and operated non-segregated hospital in the U.S. which also provided education and training for black physicians and nurses. In 1893, Dr. Williams became one of the first physicians to perform a successful open-heart surgery on a stabbing victim. He went on to found the National Medical Association and became the first African American physician in the American College of Surgeons.

  • Charles Drew, MD (1904-1950)
    • After graduating college in 1926, Charles Drew applied for medical school but could not afford the tuition. He worked for many years at a college in Baltimore to save the tuition to attend medical school in Canada. Drew became passionate about blood research, including the newly discovered categorization of blood types, and continued his blood research in a fellowship at Columbia University. There he developed a method for processing and storing blood plasma so it could be preserved and transported long distances before being reconstituted for use. Thanks to his work on the “Blood for Britain” project during World War II, he became the director of the blood bank for the American Red Cross, eventually resigning his post when the Red Cross insisted African American blood be segregated. In 1943, he became the first black surgeon to be an examiner for the American Board of Surgery and was later elected to the International College of Surgeons. 

  • Myra Adele Logan (1908-1977)
    • Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, Mary Logan completed her medical degree in 1933. In 1943, Dr. Logan became the first woman to perform open-heart surgery in only the ninth operation of its kind in the world. She later became the first African American Woman to be elected a fellow to the American College of Surgeons. She also studied antibiotic therapies and developed more accurate tests for breast cancer. 

  • John Beauregard Johnson, MD, FACC (1908-1972)
    • A professor and the Department Head of the Department of Medicine at Howard University, Dr. Johnson was an innovator in using cardiac angiography and cardiac catheterization as diagnostic tools. He is also recognized as the first African American physician to be elected as a Fellow to the American College of Cardiology. 

Edward William Hawthorne, MD, PHD, FACC

  • Edward William Hawthorne, MD, PhD, FACC (1920-1986)
    • A professor and Department Head for the Department of Physiology at Howard University, Dr. Hawthorne pioneered the use of large animal research in understanding cardiovascular physiology and cardiac muscle mechanics. 

  • Vivien Theodore Thomas, MD (1910-1985)
    • Though Thomas did not have education beyond high school and worked for many years as a carpenter, he became a surgical technician later in life. In 1944, he helped develop the surgical technique to correct “blue baby syndrome” (Tetralogy of Fallot) with Dr. Helen Taussig and Dr. Alfred Blalock at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He went on to teach operative techniques to some of the most prominent surgeons in the U.S, even becoming the subject of a 2004 film “Something the Lord Made.

  • Charles Curry, MD, FACC
    • Born in North Carolina, Dr. Curry is no stranger to health disparities. He graduated Johnson C Smith University in 1935 and went on to complete his medical degree at Howard University in 1959. He became the first African American resident at Duke University Medical Center and the first African American to receive board certification from the American Board of Internal Medicine. He eventually became the Chief of Cardiology for Howard University Hospital and was the first African American to serve on the Board of Trustees for the American College of Cardiology.

Josephine Isabel-Jones, MD, FACC

  • Josephine Isabel-Jones, MD, FACC
    • Born in the segregated South, Dr. Isabel-Jones decided to be a pediatrician at the age of eight, believing it was her calling. Highly motivated, she earned a college scholarship from a Black Greek-lettered organization, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Throughout her time in college, she was a vocal advocate for the Civil Rights movement and voting rights. One of only four women to graduate from Meharry Medical College, she became the first African American resident at the University of Tennessee. She developed a deep love of pediatric cardiology and eventually became the first African-American woman board-certified in pediatric cardiology in the U.S.

  • Richard Allen Williams, MD, FACC
    • Founded the Association of Black Cardiologists in 1974 to promote the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease in African Americans and other minorities, and to achieve health equity by eliminating health disparities in people of color. 

  • Kim Allan Williams Sr., MD, MACC
    • The first African American president of the American College of Cardiology and Chief of Cardiology at Rush Medical College, Dr. Williams has been a fierce advocate to reduce the effects of cardiovascular disease in the African American community. 

Elizabeth Odilile Ofili, MBBS, MPH, FACC

  • Elizabeth Odilile Ofili, MBBS, MPH, FACC
    • Focused on cardiovascular disparities and issues of women’s health, she is the first female president of the Association of Black Cardiologists. She was also instrumental in the implementation of the African American Heart Failure Trial which results in changing practice guidelines for the treatment of heart failure in African American patients. 

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