HCGC is proud to celebrate Black History Month, acknowledging and appreciating the impact that Black people made in our goal to find solutions that provide the best health to all people in the Columbus region. This month we are featuring two blogs from our partners at the Columbus Medical Association on Black physicians who have made significant impact in medicine. Visit CMA's blog here: https://blog.columbusmedicalassociation.org/blog-1.
Celebrate Black History Month: Joycelyn Elders
by Annie Wilson, CMA
Joycelyn Elders is a pediatrician and outspoken public health advocate who served as the first African American Surgeon General of the United States.
Elders was born August 13, 1933, in Schaal Arkansas, to a family of sharecroppers and the first of 8 children. At 15, she entered Philander Smith College, a historically black liberal arts college in Little Rock, Arkansas, on a scholarship from the United Methodist Church. That same year she saw a doctor for the first time in her life and decided to become a physician herself.
After 3 years, she graduated and joined the Army. In 1956 she enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock on the GI Bill. At medical school, Elders was one of three black students and the only black woman student. While Elders was able to attend classes with her white classmates (the Supreme Court had declared separate but equal education unconstitutional two years earlier) she couldn’t eat with them at the white-only cafeteria.
Elders graduated with her M.D. in 1960 and went on complete her residency in Little Rock where she was appointed chief pediatric resident and specialized in pediatric endocrinology. During this time Elders became an advocate for issues regarding adolescent sexuality, particularly teen pregnancy and contraception.
By the late 1980s, 20% of children born in Arkansas were from teenage mothers, which then Governor, Bill Clinton, considered a social and fiscal crisis. So, in 1987 Clinton appointed Elders to the Office of Director of Public Health. During this time she instituted a controversial program to dispense contraceptives to public school students, promoted public awareness of AIDS and teen pregnancy, and successfully lobbied for a mandated K-12 sex education program that focused on personal responsibility, hygiene, and substance abuse prevention.
In 1993, Elders was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the post of. U.S. Surgeon General. She was only the second black person to be tapped for a cabinet-level position. Elders’ nomination was met with strong opposition from conservatives at the time because of her outspokenness on sex education, but she was eventually confirmed. As surgeon general, Elders focused on several health issues: tobacco-related disease, AIDS, and alcohol and drug abuse; she also continued her advocacy for sex education. She played an important role in Clinton’s early efforts to reorganize the health care system, and she regularly urged the public to consider unorthodox solutions to public health problems. Some of her suggestions concerning sex education in public schools, however, caused great controversy, and in December 1994 Clinton asked her to resign.
Elders returned to the University of Arkansas as a faculty researcher and professor of pediatric endocrinology at the Arkansas Children's Hospital. As of 2021 and now retired from practice, Elders serves as professor emerita at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine and remains active in public health education often advocating for comprehensive sexual health education and speaking out against teen pregnancy.
Celebrate Black History Month: Patricia Bath
by Annie Wilson, CMA
Patricia Bath, MD, was an ophthalmologist and inventor of the Laserphaco Probe used in cataract surgery which resulted in her becoming the first black woman physician to receive a medical patent.
Bath was born 1942, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. When she was still a teenager, she received a scholarship from the US National Science Foundation, which led to an opportunity to join a research project at Yeshiva University and the then Harlem Hospital Center in New York. She stayed in New York for her undergraduate degree, studying chemistry at Hunter College, and then moved to Washington, DC, for her medical degree at Howard University College of Medicine. Bath interned at Harlem Hospital from 1968 to 1969 and completed a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University from 1969 to 1970.
While at Harlem Hospital and Columbia University, Bath quickly noticed the eye clinic in Harlem had an extraordinary amount of blind or visually impaired patients compared to the few at Columbia. This observation led her to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study, which documented that blindness among black patients was double that among white patients. Bath concluded that the high prevalence of blindness among the black population was due to lack of access to ophthalmic care. As a result, she proposed a new discipline, known as community ophthalmology, which was grounded in her belief that “eyesight is a basic human right”.
Bath went on to join the faculty of UCLA Charles R Drew University of Medicine and Science. During this time, she began to think that emerging laser technology might provide a more precise and less painful way to remove cataracts and restore eyesight. Bath took a sabbatical from her positions in Los Angeles to pursue her research in Europe after experiencing numerous instances of racism and sexism. In 1988, after five years of research while in Paris, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe. With this device, Bath was able to restore the vision of patients who had been blind for decades and it’s still used today.
Bath died on May 30, 2019.