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Feb 1, 2019
by: Carrie Larsen
#BlackHistoryMonth: Four African-American Pioneers in Medicine
Dr. Herbert Smitherman
 
 

Dr. Herbert Smitherman was a pioneering executive and professional chemist at Proctor & Gamble. Dr. Herbert Smitherman was a pioneering executive and professional chemist at Proctor & Gamble who led the way for other African-Americans at the prestigious company in the 1960s. He was the first black person with a doctorate hired at Proctor & Gamble. With a Ph.D in physical organic chemistry, Dr. Smitherman developed a number of incredibly popular patents, including Crest toothpaste, Safeguard soap, Bounce fabric softeners, Biz, Folgers Coffee and Crush soda, to name a few. Not only are they still on the shelves, but many of them are on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center in the featured exhibit, “America I AM: The African-American Imprint.”

Nicknamed the “Jackie Robinson of Proctor & Gamble,” Dr. Smitherman spent 29 years there before turning in his labcoat to work as a professor at Wilberforce University. But after serving at the historically black college, Smitherman turned his attention to starting a high school called the Western Hills Design Technology School to help black students perform better in math and science.

A child of the south, Dr. Smitherman’s family lived in Birmingham, Alabama, where his father served as a reverend. A young Smitherman would see his father’s church burn down twice during their push for voting registration and voting rights.

He died this year on Oct. 9.

Dr. Smitherman’s legacy was left in his association with HBCUs, specifically his alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, where he met his wife of 51 years; Howard University, where he got his PH.D, and Wilberforce University, where he enlightened many students on his world of historical innovation.

Dr. Alexa Irene Canady

It is because of Dr. Alexa Irene Canady's vision that she has forever changed the face of medicine.

Canady was born in Lansing, Michigan to Elizabeth Hortense (Golden) Canady and Dr. Clinton Canady, Jr. Her mother was an educator and former national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She became Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in 1987 and held the position until her retirement in 2001. During her time as Chief, she specialized in congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, trauma and brain tumors. Her work and accomplishments have opened the door for many surgeons to be of all races and genders.

When her internship ended in 1976, Canady moved to the University of Minnesota, becoming, as a resident of the university’s department of neurosurgery, the first female African-American neurosurgery resident in the United States. Upon completing her residency in 1981, she became the country’s first female African-American neurosurgeon.

“Convincing the neurosurgery chairman that I was not a risk to drop out or be fired, a disaster in a program where there are only one or two residents per year was one of my hardest obstacles. I was the first African American woman [in the department]. Along with that, my other greatest obstacle was convincing myself that someone would give me a chance to work as a neurosurgeon.”

She then became a surgical intern at the Yale-New Haven Hospital from 1975-1976, rotating und Dr. William F. Collins. Although being an exceptional student, she still faced prejudice and discriminative comments as she was both the first black and female intern in the program. She then became the first African American woman neurosurgery resident in the US at the University of Minnesota. Despite what people said about her, Canady viewed her accomplishments as something both women and African Americans could look up to.

In addition to her other responsibilities, Canady conducted research and taught as a professor of neurosurgery at Wayne State University. She maintained a busy schedule until her retirement from the Children’s Hospital in 2001. After retiring, Canady moved to Florida. When she learned that there were no pediatric neurosurgeons in her immediate area, she began to practice part-time at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital.

Daniel Hale Williams

The Pennsylvania native was one of the first physicians in the U.S. to perform open-heart surgery in 1893. In 1891, he also founded the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first racially integrated nursing and intern program in the U.S.

The heart surgery at Provident, which his patient survived for the next twenty years, is referred to as "the first successful heart surgery" by Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1913, Williams was elected as the only African-American charter member of the American College of Surgeons.

Williams received honorary degrees from Howard and Wilberforce Universities, was named a charter member of the American College of Surgeons, and was a member of the Chicago Surgical Society.

A Pennsylvania State Historical Marker was placed at U.S. Route 22 eastbound (Blair St., 300 block), Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate his accomplishments and mark his boyhood home.

Williams died of a stroke in Idlewild, Michigan on August 4, 1931.

 

Patricia Bath

Born in 1942 in Harlem, Bath became a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of blindness. She also advocated for eyesight as a basic human right by founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976.

Bath became the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973, which led to her appointment two years later as the first woman faculty member at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1988, Bath became the first African-American woman physician to receive a medical patent with her Laserphaco Probe, which improved cataract treatment.

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