Today, particularly in the United States, People of Color are not given nearly enough of the spotlight for the incredible efforts that they have achieved in history. This is especially true for the History of Medicine. We at The Researcher’s Gateway want to highlight some of these amazing individuals and hope that by seeing the incredible work they have done (or are still doing) we can do our due diligence in helping make sure that the accomplishments of all are seen. The works and lives of people of color matter and they should be seen.
Serena Auñón-Chancellor, the second Hispanic astronaut, is the first Hispanic medical doctor to become a NASA astronaut.
Serena Auñón-Chancellor, MD is a doctor certified in both internal and space medicine. She began working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a flight surgeon at the Johnson Space Center in 2006. As part of this job, she worked with International Space Crew members in Star City, Russia for 9 months. While there, she helped with medical operations, including underwater training.
In addition, Auñón-Chancellor worked in support positions for both STS-127 and the Orion Spacecraft. The STS-127 delivered both personnel and equipment to the International Space Center in 2009. Though Auñón-Chancellor did not go into space herself on this flight, she served as the Deputy Crew Surgeon. Auñón-Chancellor also served as the Deputy Lead for Orion – Medical Operations. NASA built the Orion as a spacecraft to transport humans into deep space. NASA intends Orion to eventually take astronauts to Mars.
In 2009, NASA selected Auñón-Chancellor as one of the 14 participants in the 20th NASA astronaut class. She has conducted both missions in space and undersea exploration. She served as the Flight Engineer for NASA expeditions 56 and 57 to the International Space Center. While in space, she helped with a wide variety of and research projects. Many of these, such as studies with cancer drugs, help improve medical treatments for people back on earth.
Patricia Bath, the first woman ophthalmologist at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine Jules Stein Eye Institute.
Patricia Bath, MD (4 November 1942 – 30 May 2019) dedicated her work to fighting blindness, particularly in vulnerable communities. She earned her medical degree at Howard University College of Medicine in 1968, did her internship at Harlem Hospital, and then went on to a fellowship in Ophthalmology at Columbia University. She was the first African American to finish a residency in Ophthalmology, the field of medicine specializing in eye disorders. Bath was also the first African American resident at New York University and the first African American woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program.
Through her experiences at the different hospitals, Bath discovered that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than their white counterparts. Her research into the issue indicated that this was because they lacked access to ophthalmic healthcare. To address this, Bath proposed a new discipline, Community Ophthalmology, that combined public health, community medicine, and clinical ophthalmology. This approach is now used worldwide to treat the diseases that can cause blindness. These programs also provide schoolchildren who need them glasses to help them succeed in school.
Bath left New York for Los Angeles to work at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). There, she became the first African American surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center. With three of her colleagues she founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB). The AIPB works to protect and restore eyesight for all people, regardless of income and social standing.
In addition to these contributions, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a device used in cataract surgeries. Cataracts cause loss of vision and eventually blindness. The Laserphaco Probe made the procedure easier, more accurate, and safer than before. Her patent for the device, in 1988, was the first medical device patent by a female African American doctor.
Ben Carson became the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins at the age of 32.
At 32, Benjamin Carson, Sr, MD (18 September 1951 – present) was the youngest American doctor to head an important division in the history of the hospital. He gained international renown for groundbreaking surgeries, especially his ability to separate conjoined twins connected at the head. This is a particularly long, difficult procedure that is all too often fatal for the twins. Until his retirement in 2013, he averaged 300 surgeries a year, three times the typical for neurosurgeons. In 2008, President George W. Bush awarded Carson with the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honor, for his medical contributions.
In 1987 in Germany, Carson performed the first successful separation of occipital craniopagus twins, twins connected at the back of their heads. He used an innovative procedure where he lowered the 7 month old twins’ body temperatures to the point of circulatory arrest to reduce bleeding. While the twins suffered some bleeding and brain damage from the surgery, they survived.
In 1997, Carson went to Zambia to serve as the primary surgeon on the first successful operation separating Type 2 vertical craniopagus twins. These twins were connected at the tops of their heads, facing in opposite directions. Both twins survived without brain damage from this particularly challenging and dangerous procedure.
Carson performed the first successful separation of hydrocephalic twins using an intrauterine shunt. Hydrocephalus happens when too much cerebrospinal fluid puts too much pressure on the brain. He used the shunt to drain the excess fluid away from the brain. He also refined other surgical procedures, including hemispherectomy and craniofacial reconstruction.
Severo Ochoa de Albornoz, a Spanish-American physician and biochemist, synthesized RNA (ribonucleic acid).
Severo Ochoa de Albornoz, MD (24 September 1905 – 1 November 1993) earned a Nobel Prize in 1959 for his research, shared with Arthur Kornberg, who synthesized Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA). A medical doctor, Ochoa focused his research on biochemistry. A scholar of world renown, he worked in Spain, Germany, and Great Britain before coming to the United States in 1941. In 1942, he began working for the New York University School of Medicine.
Ochoa focused on enzymatic processes used in energy transfer in cells. Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions in the body. He was particularly interested in metabolism and the roles of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. These elements are critical to how energy is stored and energy transferred in the body. Ochoa identified glyoxalase, the enzyme used to detoxify compounds that are produced naturally through metabolism but are toxic to cells. A number of anticancer medications and antibiotics target this enzyme.
Ochoa’s work with glyoxalase led to his discovery of a critical enzyme, Polynucleotide Phosphorylase (PNPase) in 1955, With his colleague, the biochemist Dr. Marianne Grunberg-Manago, he found that PNPase plays a critical role in the synthesis of RNA. It copies the information on how to create proteins from the DNA and transfers it to the RNA, which then goes to the part of the cell that produces the proteins. This discovery paved the way to the ability to artificially synthesize RNA. The relationship between DNA, RNA, and the production of proteins is key to understanding how genetics work.
Vivien Thomas developed a procedure to treat cyanotic heart disease in infants.
Dr. Vivien Thomas, PhD (29 August 1910 – 26 November 1985), an African American, never went to medical school. He had planned to become a doctor, but the bank failures at the beginning of the Great Depression wiped out the money he had saved for tuition. Instead he went to work at Vanderbilt University in 1930 and worked as a laboratory assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock. Because of Thomas’ work, Blalock trained Thomas to be a surgical assistant. When Blalock went to work for Johns Hopkins in 1941, he took Thomas with him.
Thomas assisted Blalock on a number of research projects dealing with pulmonary hypertension, where the blood pressure in the lungs is too high, and traumatic shock. They learned that significant blood loss caused the traumatic shock. This enabled doctors to save the lives of thousands during World War II by treating them with blood transfusions. Thomas created his own surgical tools, since at the time none existed for heart operations.
Thomas’ is best known, however, for his role in developing the procedure used to treat cyanotic heart disease in infants, otherwise known as Blue Baby Syndrome. Cyanotic heart disease prevents babies from getting enough oxygen in their blood. Dr. Helen Taussig, a pediatrician, realized that a shunt, now called the Blalock-Taussig shunt, could save them. She went to Blalock for help. Thomas, working as Blalock’s research assistant, examined heart specimens and tested the prototype on dogs with the same problem. He performed over 300 surgeries on dogs. In 1944, Thomas assisted Blalock in performing the operation for the first time in a human infant. Blalock relied on Thomas for guidance, since Thomas was far more experienced with the procedure.
Since that first operation, Thomas assisted in countless heart surgeries as well as continuing to conduct innovative research on heart procedures. His skill was so great that he trained hundreds of surgeons, even though he was never allowed to operate on a human himself. Though it took decades for him to get the recognition he deserved, John Hopkins granted him an honorary doctorate in 1976 and the title Instructor Emeritus in Surgery in 1979.
These incredible people are just highlights. There are so many others, some of which are featured in our other blog posts listed below. You can explore more of them, by taking a look at our Black History Month Special Feature Page.
The Researcher’s Gateway
Here’s the list of our coming blogs for World Health Worker Week.
- Famous figures at the beginning of global healthcare.
- Important accomplishments by Healthcare Workers in Specific Diseases.
- Famous historical figures in medical research.
- Famous Women in Global Healthcare.
- Famous People of Color in Global Healthcare.
What can you do to help celebrate World Health Worker Week?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is probably more well known and heard of now, than it ever was before. Their job is to identify these situations and they have been helping and organizing the response to the Covid-19 pandemic from the start. Who better, to our mind, to look to for World Health Worker Week. The WHO has created a World Health Worker Week Portal and their focus for 2020 is Leaders on the Line. They hope to use the portal to help raise public awareness
Here are some ideas, from the World Health Worker Week Portal website “hosted by the Frontline Health Workers Coalition secretariat at IntraHealth International”. (WHO, 2020)
- Honor and thank health workers for their heroic efforts digitally with #WHWWeek.
- Share with your policymakers FHWC’s Recommendations to Policymakers on COVID-19. Tell policymakers not to restrict procurement of personal protective equipment and other supplies needed by frontline health workers in low- and middle-income countries and address other issues critical to health worker’s safety and support.
- In the US, call your member of the House of Representatives to support House Resolution 467 recognizing frontline health workers impact in saving lives and battling global health threats.
- Worldwide, donate and ask your governments to support the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and the Working for Health Multipartner Trust Fund.
- Follow @FHWCoalition and #HealthWorkersCount beyond World Health Worker Week for more actions to support frontline health workers.
(This information is a direct quote from the Leaders on the Line World Health Worker Week Portal, 2020)
Thank you again, to all those on the Front Lines for helping fight the current crisis, but also for all the service you have given your communities, countries and the world over the years.