The theme for Black History Month 2022 is “Black Health and Wellness.” We take a pause to reflect and recognize the struggles, sacrifices, and contributions the people of the black diaspora have made in advancing Western medicine. This Black History Month we will also examine how American healthcare has often underserved the Black community as well as celebrate the legacy of Black contributors, scholars, and practitioners in Western medicine.
- Health and race disparities in America have deep roots: A brief timeline. Published April 20, 2020
- 1742: Onesimus, a Boston enslaved person, told his owner about a procedure where he became immune to smallpox by exposing himself to the bacteria of someone with smallpox through an open wound, an early inoculation. His owner, Cotton Mather, experimented with this treatment and only six people out of 242 died.
- 1830s: Samuel George Morton wrote “Crania Americana: Or a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America,” in which he claimed that black people had smaller skulls than white people and thus smaller brains. Experts contend this work provided the foundation of scientific racism.
- Mid-1800s:Surgeon James Marion Sims became known as the “father of modern gynecology” for developing surgical techniques that help women through a difficult childbirth. Sims created his techniques by operating on enslaved black women without using anesthesia.
- 1899: In the book “The Philadelphia Negro,” sociologist and activist W.E.B. Du Bois argued that the differences in health outcomes for blacks and whites had more do with living conditions, than genetics.
- 1913: Sterilization laws were centered towards people with mental illnesses in its beginning stages, but expanded to a list of different medical conditions and extreme circumstances that gave doctors leeway in choosing who to sterilize. These laws drastically affected African Americans. African Americans are four times more likely to be sterilized than their white counterparts.
- 1932: The U.S. Public Health Service started a 40-year experiment looking at the “natural history” of untreated syphilis. Some 600 poor, black sharecroppers enrolled in The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. They were unaware that they had syphilis, which ensured that government doctors could study the disease and the effects it had on the participants. Even when a treatment for syphilis became available the men were not treated.
- 1960s: The Civil Rights movement helped pioneer legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, hospital desegregation, the Voting Rights Bill, and passages of Medicare and Medicaid. The African American community saw an increase in overall health for the next decade due to these changes.
- May 16, 1997: After a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached in 1974 for the participants of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, President Bill Clinton formally apologizes to victims on behalf of the United States government.
- 2007: “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” a book by Harriet Washington is published. In addition to highlighting medical experiments, it also explains why many African Americans have deep mistrust in medical professionals.
- July 30, 2008: The American Medical Association apologizes to the National Medical Association, a society of African American physicians. For more than a century, the AMA reinforced or passively accepted racial inequalities and excluded black doctors from AMA as well as state and local medical societies.