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The Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Blog Black History Month: Celebrating the Legends of Innovation and Science

Drawing of African-American children holding a globe

February 15, 2018

When we think about science, we think of innovation, transformation and enrichment. Today, we benefit from the possibilities that have stemmed from technology, from Uber rides to Facetiming with medical providers, all with a tap of a finger. Who are these originators, the great innovative minds and pioneers of science? We celebrate the legacy of the black men and women who were fundamental in the advancement of science and medicine.

Activist and surgeon Charles R. Drew was recognized for being a forerunner in the field of blood transfusions, a science that is pivotal today in modern blood banks. While at Columbia University, Dr. Drew developed a method for separating red blood cells from plasma, allowing them to be stored separately, a technique that was instrumental during World War II. The racially divisive climate of the time included segregation in the donation of blood; Dr. Drew resigned from the Red Cross as in protest of this policy.

From the preservation of blood cells to refining methods in the science of ophthalmology, black men and women have been at the epicenter. Dr. Patricia Bath is an African-American woman who invented the Laserphaco probe in the mid-1980s.  This innovative device is used to remove cataracts non-invasively, using lasers. Dr. Bath's state-of-the-art invention has helped reduce inaccuracies in surgeries.

In 1912, Garrett Morgan developed the world's first mask designed to assist firefighters. Mr. Morgan created a hood that allowed the user to breathe in the absence of oxygen and in the presence of toxins. In 1916, during a catastrophic explosion, a group of Cleveland Water workers were trapped in a 50-foot tunnel below Lake Erie. Morgan's groundbreaking invention saved their lives, earning him a medal from the International Association of Fire Engineers, and making him an honorary member. Several other people involved in the rescue were honored by Cleveland officials, but Morgan was not included among them. In an effort to remedy this injustice, which he believed was racially motivated, a group of Cleveland citizens gave him a gold medal studded with diamonds in recognition for his part in the rescue. After its early success, Mr. Morgan's invention was widely adopted by the American forces during World War II.

Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans, WMCP graduates

Drexel University College of Medicine has its own historical gems. One of the College of Medicine's predecessor institutions is the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), the world's first medical school for women. The College's unique place in American history includes support of all women in medical careers, no matter their race or ethnicity. Dr. Rebecca Cole graduated from WMCP in 1867, becoming the second African-American woman to earn an MD degree in the country.  A number of African-American women followed her, including two who graduated 30 years later. Drs. Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans, WMCP's class of 1897, continued Dr. Cole's legacy. In the era of Jim Crow laws, Drs. Grier and Evans became the first African-American women to practice medicine in their respective states of Georgia and South Carolina. 

The College of Medicine's rich practice of inclusivity helped support the legacy of Virginia M. Alexander (1900-1949), who founded and housed the Aspiranto Health Home, a clinic for mothers and babies, and supportive allies such as financier Anthony J. Drexel, who founded the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry in 1891 to offer practical education to men and women without regard to socioeconomic status, race or religion.

Our history is rich, filled with emerging pioneers who overcame obstacles including slavery, segregation and society's lack compassion. And yet, resilience and hope allowed these remarkable, legendary Black trailblazers to create a long-lasting path for the future of science and medicine today.

Written by:
Lidyvez Sawyer, MPH


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