3 Impactful Black Figures in Medicine

James McCune Smith and Rebecca Lee Crumpler

The road to becoming a physician requires self-sacrifice, patience, and conviction. Few people embody these ideals more than the following Black figures in medicine.

James McCune Smith

As one of the most accomplished Black intellectuals in antebellum America, James McCune Smith set the tone for other civil rights activists of his time. Smith was the son of a former slave mother who bought her freedom, though it is not well-known who his father was. After graduating from the New York African Free School, he was denied entry into all U.S. universities. Instead, in 1837, he attended the University of Glasgow. He then went on to become the first African American to receive a medical degree. Soon after, he returned to New York to open a medical practice for interracial clientele. His grit and obvious intellect propelled him to the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Smith lectured about the evils of slavery and composed literature about science, medicine, and other topics.

Alexa Canady

As a young girl, Alexa Irene Canady had always shown a keen interest in the sciences. Her parents, themselves both graduates of Black colleges, supported her in her studies and eventual plans to become a neurosurgeon. A high-achiever in academics, Canady went on to study mathematics at the University of Michigan, eventually earning a minority scholarship to study at their school of medicine. She graduated cum laude in 1975. Despite her credentials, her internship at the Yale New Haven Hospital sparked controversy; one doctor referred to her as the “new equal opportunity package.” Dr. Canady never wavered against such racial bias. Instead, she went on to become the first African-American chief of neurosurgery in the country. Fellow doctors continue to celebrate Canady for her fair-mindedness and exceptional surgical prowess.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was born in Delaware in 1831 to freed parents, Absolum and Matilda, though she was raised by her aunt for most of her life. As a nurse, her aunt cared for the feeble and indigent, which compelled Crumpler to enter a profession in which she could “relieve the suffering of others.” Without any formal education, she began to treat others, leaning on the informal knowledge she had gleaned from years of watching her aunt. She impressed doctors with her manual dexterity and impressive range of medical knowledge. Those that knew her submitted letters of recommendation to the New England Female Medical College - the first college to train women in medicine. Crumpler was one of the few African-American women to be admitted into a medical school at the time. She earned her degree in 1964 and flourished as the first African-American female physician.