In honor of Black history month, we are exploring and celebrating the work of Black leaders’ impacts on child health. We are honoring historic and contemporary leaders who have positively affected the child health landscape we know today.
To kick off our tribute, we are highlighting Vivien Theodore Thomas. Mr. Thomas’ contributions to medicine hold a special place in our heart. His revolutionary procedure used to treat blue baby syndrome (now known as cyanotic heart disease) has offered thousands of babies, children and young adults an opportunity to thrive. Dr. Thomas worked against racism and poverty to earn an honorary doctorate from the Johns Hopkins School or Medicine. His operative techniques, evolving from generation to generation of prominent surgeons, have given pediatric patients, like Henry, a fighting chance to grow and blossom.
Read more about Vivien Thomas’ remarkable story in this excellent article by Katie McCabe of the Washingtonian.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD
In 1864, after years as a nurse, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman in the United States to receive a MD degree. She earned that distinction at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts — where she also was the institution’s only Black graduate. After the Civil War, Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she worked with other Black doctors who were caring for formerly enslaved people in the Freedmen’s Bureau. While she faced sexism and other forms of harassment, Crumpler ultimately found the experience transformative. "I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration," she wrote.
Crumpler also wrote A Book of Medical Discourses: In Two Parts. Published in 1883, the book addresses children’s and women’s health and is written for “mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”
Maxine Hayes, MD, MPH, FAAP
(1946 – present)
As a maternal and child health expert, Dr. Maxine Hayes served as the former State Health Officer for the Washington State Department of Health. Hayes held key positions and advised elected leaders, medical communities as well as local health departments. Hayes earned her degrees at Spelman, a historically Black college, and her postgraduate work at Vanderbilt University in pediatrics.
Hayes has contributed years of service and insight into child and maternal health programs in the United States and remains an advocate for improving maternal and child health through a public health lens.
Alexa Irene Canady, MD
(1950 – present)
Alexa Irene Canady, MD, nearly dropped out of college due to a crisis of self-confidence but ultimately went on to achieve dramatic success in medicine. In 1981, she became the first black neurosurgeon in the United States, and just a few years later, she rose to the ranks of chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
Canady worked for decades as a successful pediatric neurosurgeon and was ready to retire in Florida in 2001. But she donned her surgical scrubs once again to practice part time at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, where there was a dearth of pediatric neurosurgery services. Canady has been lauded for her patient-centered approach to care, which she said was a boon to her career. “I was worried that because I was a black woman, any practice opportunities would be limited.” But, she noted, “by being patient-centered, the practice growth was exponential.”
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA
(1954 – present)
A force to be reckoned with, Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey is the first woman and first Black person to head the Robert Wood Johnson (RWJF), the largest charitable foundation focused on health in the United States. She was the RWJF president and CEO from 2003 to 2017 and well-known for her leadership around health initiatives geared toward addressing childhood obesity, connecting people to health plans through the Affordable Care Act, and health system integrations. Her dynamic resume represents her lasting influence on addressing child and family health needs.
Supporting the hard work of Black leaders in our communities is of paramount importance now more than ever to address health inequities and racial disparities at work in our institutions. Looking back at our history is one way of honoring and acknowledging the mountains people had to climb in order to succeed to the benefit of medicine. But it’s important for us to remember that the work is not done.
In the prolific words of author and poet Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” To know better, we can peak into our own backyards and have meaningful, reflexive conversations at home, in the work place, and our extended social spheres. To do better, we can invest in our contemporary leaders in the policy arena, government office, health professions, nonprofit organizations, and beyond. Join us in doing better.