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Black and African Americans in Military Medicine

Honoring the achievements of black and African Americans throughout U.S. history, Black History Month is celebrated each February. Early celebratory events date back to February 1926 which encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The observance was expanded to a month-long celebration in 1976 and has since been commemorated by every president.

Let's take a look back at just a few of the many trailblazers who have made great strides in medicine while combatting the challenges faced by the black and African American communities. We honor them and thank them for their contributions to health and medicine.

1837 James McCune Smith

BLM James McCune Smith

Dr. James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn his medical degree. At the time, Dr. Smith was barred from earning his degree in the U.S. due to his race, causing him to travel to Glasgow, Scotland to complete his education. Upon his return to New York, he became the first university-trained Black physician to practice medicine and publish articles in medical journals in the U.S. He went on to work alongside abolitionist Frederick Douglass to put an end to slavery and establish the National Council of the Colored People.

Read more about Dr. James McCune Smith here.

1847 David Jones Peck

BLM David Jones Peck

David Jones Peck was the first African American to receive a medical degree in the United States. While his presence at Chicago’s Rush Medical College in 1846-1847 was objected to by many, Peck’s fellow students voted on his admittance, and he successfully completed the requirements for graduation in 1847. Following his graduation, Peck toured Ohio with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and others before establishing his medical practice in 1848.

Find more about the life of Dr. David Jones Peck here.

1861 Susie King Taylor

BLM Susie King Taylor

Born into slavery in Georgia, Susie King Taylor is known for being the first Black nurse during the American Civil War. Taylor treated wounded soldiers in the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. An educator and an author, Taylor wrote about her military service in her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. Taylor also organized the 67th Corps of the Women's Relief Corps in 1886.

1863 Alexander T. Augusta

BLM Alexander T Augusta

Alexander T. Augusta is among 13 known African Americans that served as surgeons during the American Civil War. A native Virginian, Augusta traveled to Canada to study medicine and achieve his degree. Following his request to President Lincoln, Dr. Alexander Augusta was the first African American to be commissioned as a medical officer in the Union Army. Augusta would later become the first Black surgeon to lead a hospital in the U.S., leading the contraband camp in Washington, D.C. from May through October 1863. Augusta was also the first African American to serve on the faculty of a medical school in the United States, serving, at the time, the newly established medical department of Howard University in 1868. On May 16, 2023,The Defense Health Agency conducted a renaming ceremony at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, officially changing the name to the Alexander T. Augusta Military Medical Center.

Read more about Alexander T. Augusta.

1864 Rebecca Lee Crumpler

BLM Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler began her career as a nurse but went on to become the first female African American to earn a medical degree back in 1864. When the Civil War ended, Crumpler moved her practice to Richmond, Virginia. There, she worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, tending to the health of newly freed slaves.

You can read more about Crumpler and other trailblazing female physicians here.

1864 Charles B. Purvis

BLM Charles Purvis

Charles B. Purvis was born in Philadelphia in 1842, the son of famed abolitionists Robert Purvis and Harriet Forten. At the age of eighteen he enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio, earning a bachelor’s degree in science in 1863. He then entered medical school at Wooster Medical College in Cleveland. In 1864 Purvis served in the Union Army in the US Civil War as a military nurse at Camp Barker. He then graduated from Western Reserve in March 1865, where he completed medical training. Two months after graduation he took the position of acting assistant surgeon with a rank of first lieutenant and was assigned to duty in Washington, DC.  Purvis was among the founders of the medical school at Howard University. He was the first black physician to attend a sitting president when he attended President James Garfield after he was shot by an assassin in 1881.  Purvis was also the first black physician to head a hospital under civilian authority when he was made surgeon-in-charge of the Freedmen's Hospital that same year. Dr. Charles B. Purvis was the first black person to serve on the D. C. Board of Medical Examiners and the second black instructor at an American medical school. He was also a leading activist in civil rights and universal suffrage movements.

1895 Robert Boyd

BLM Robert Boyd

In 1895, Dr. Robert Boyd co-founded the National Medical Association (NMA), which represents U.S. African American doctors and medical professionals. Jim Crow laws were a major obstacle for Black physicians at the time. Even the American Medical Association barred Black doctors from becoming members. Boyd, who served as the first NMA president, established the NMA to make sure that Black physicians had a voice in shaping medical policy and developing clinical expertise.

Read more about Dr. Robert Boyd here.

1906 Adah Belle Thoms

BLM Adah Belle Thoms

In 1906, Adah Belle Thoms was named assistant superintendent of nurses at Lincoln Hospital in New York. While she would spend the next 18 years acting as director, her race precluded her from being given the title, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Thoms co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and served as the organization’s president from 1916 to 1923, and later successfully lobbied for Black nurses to serve in the American Red Cross Nursing and Army Nurse Corps during WWI. Thoms published the first chronicle of the history of black nurses in America with her book “Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses.” She was one the original inductees to the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976.

1914-1918 Louis T. Wright

BHM Louis T Wright

Dr. Louis T. Wright joined the Army Medical Corps, serving as a lieutenant during World War I, stationed in France. While there, he introduced intradermal vaccination for smallpox and was awarded the Purple Heart after a gas attack. Dr. Wright was one of 104 African American doctors who served the 40,000 Black troops who saw combat during WWI. Wright, who lived until 1952—despite a gas-inhalation injury that permanently affected his lungs—helped pioneer the use of chemotherapy, became the first African American physician on an integrated hospital staff, and challenged stereotypes about Black people through his civil rights activism.

Learn more about Dr. Wright here.

1941 Charles Drew

BLM Charles Drew

Often referred to as the “Father of Blood Banks” because he developed transformative ways to store and process blood plasma, Dr. Charles Drew spearheaded a blood bank for the American Red Cross to be used for U.S. military personnel in 1941. Dr. Drew pioneered the use and preservation of blood plasma during World War II, saving the lives of thousands of U.S. troops. His discoveries translated to the civilian sector, giving rise to the modern blood banking system.

1941 Della Raney Jackson

BLM Della Raney-Jackson

In 1941, Major Della Raney Jackson became the first Black nurse to be commissioned in the U.S. Army.  After the war, she was assigned to head the nursing staff at the station hospital at Camp Beale, California. In 1946, she was promoted to major and served a tour of duty in Japan. Major Della Raney Jackson retired in 1978. Learn more about her story here.

1942 Waverly Bernard Woodson Jr.

Wavery Bernard Woodson BHM comp

In 1942, Waverly Bernard Woodson Jr. left college — and his dream of becoming a doctor — to enlist in the U.S. Army. He was sent to medic training and assigned to the all-Black 320th Antiaircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion. On June 6, 1944, en route to Omaha Beach, Woodson was severely wounded but spent 30 hours tending to other wounded men before collapsing from exhaustion. Woodson is credited with saving dozens—possibly hundreds—of lives on D-Day. After the war, Woodson served 28 years at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and later at the National Institutes of Health until his retirement in 1980. After Woodson’s passing in 2005, Sen. Chris Van Hollen fought to have Woodson posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor on D-Day. A lack of documentation, in part because of a fire that destroyed millions of military personnel files, thwarted the effort. In June 2024, it was announced that Woodson will be posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. military honor, and the highest military honor the U.S. Army can bestow.

1952 Alvin Vincent Blount Jr.

BLM Alvin Vincent Blount

Dr. Alvin Vincent Blount Jr. attended medical school at Howard University during the 1940s in Washington, DC, where he studied under Dr. Charles Drew. He was deployed to Korea in 1952 and became the first Black chief of surgery in a MASH unit. During his tour, Dr. Blount and his team performed 90 major and minor surgeries each week. Learn more about Dr. Alvin Blount Jr. here

1955 Hazel Johnson-Brown

BLM Hazel Johnson Brown

Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown enlisted in the military in 1955, just seven years after President Harry S. Truman moved to integrate the United States Armed Forces and abolish discrimination. As she continued to advance her education, Johnson-Brown was named director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing and Army Nurse of the Year two times. In 1979, she was nominated as the 16th chief of the Army Nurse Corps and promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first African American woman to earn the rank. Following her retirement, Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown entered academia, serving as a professor of nursing at Georgetown University and George Mason University.

1965 Lawrence Joel

Lawrence Joel BHM comp

A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Lawrence Joel was a veteran of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Joel began his military career in the U.S. Merchant Marines, serving for a year before enlisting in the U.S. Army at the age of 18. Trained as a medic, Joel served several deployments during the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, he served as a medical aidman for the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. On Nov. 8, 1965, while in an enemy stronghold northwest of Saigon, Joel sustained multiple wounds from intense fire. Despite his injuries, Joel persevered for more than 12 hours to bring his comrades to safety. For his selfless valor on that day, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Honor on March 9, 1967, distinguishing Joel as the first African American since the Spanish-American War of 1898 to earn the medal, as well as the first medic to receive the award during the Vietnam War. He retired from the Army in 1973 and passed away in 1984.

1972 Tony Polk

BLM Tony Polk

In 1972, Army Col. Tony Polk became the second African America to enroll in the Armed Services Blood Program’s Specialist in Blood Banking Fellowship Program. Polk would go on to serve in the Pacific blood program during the Vietnam War and later as the overall person in charge of military blood banking in Europe. Polk would later become the director of the Department of Defense Military Blood Program Office and would transform the various military blood programs into what would become the Armed Services Blood Program of today.

1980 Guthrie Turner Jr.

BLM Guthrie Turner Jr

Brigadier General Guthrie Turner Jr. was the first African American to achieve the rank of general officer in the Army Medical Corps and the first African American to command an Army hospital – serving as Madigan Army Medical Center's commanding general from 1980 to 1983. After his retirement from the military, Dr. Turner entered a second career as the Medicaid Director of the Medicaid Assistance Administration of the Department of Social and Human Services for the State of Washington. A man who believed in service, Dr. Turner donated his time to many organizations such as Shaw University, the Franciscan Health Network, the National Medical Association, the Madigan Foundation Board, the Tacoma Urban League, and Oberlin Congregational Church.

1989 Shan K. Bagby

Shan K Bagby timeline comp

With a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and Doctor of Dental Medicine, it’s no wonder that Shan K. Bagby’s 22-year military career is distinguished by leadership and influence. Bagby commanded eight dental facilities in Iraq, taught oral surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and served as chief of the U.S. Army Dental Corps. On May 24, 2018, Bagby became the U.S. Army’s first African American dental officer to be promoted to brigadier general. Two years later, he was named commanding general of the Brooke Army Medical Center—the Military Health System's largest and only Level I trauma center. Bagby later served as deputy director at the Defense Health Agency from September 2021 to May 2022. After military service, Bagby became vice president of Mobile Integrated Care at Cityblock Health, Brooklyn, New York, which delivers medical care and services to underserved communities.

1995 Lynnelle Boamah

BLM Lynette Boamah

How did the sometimes homeless kid who lost her dad to gun violence wind up advising military leaders on the health and wellness of an entire region of troops? According to Navy Capt. Lynelle Boamah, it was her determination, invaluable mentors, and her sister's urging to join the U.S. Navy. Boamah, a board-certified pediatric gastroenterologist was the first black female Medical Corps commanding officer to lead the Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command in Twentynine Palms, California. In July 2021 Boamah became U.S. Third Fleet surgeon for San Diego-based fleet's leadership on all things medical. In January 2023, a Maritime Headquarters was established at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Falls Church, Virginia. Later that year, Capt. Boamah was named its Director of Maritime Operations.

2001 Tawanna McGhee-Thondique

BHM Tawanna McGhee Thondique

Col. Tawana McGhee-Thondique, an Alabama native, has been making history since she commissioned into the U.S. Army in 2001 as the first female African American Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon in the Army Dental Corps. Armed with a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene, a doctorate in dental sciences, and certification in oral and maxillofacial surgery, it’s no wonder that McGhee-Thondique has served our nation around the globe in a host of leadership positions in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Among many firsts, McGhee-Thondique was the first female to command the only dual-hatted dental command in the Army: the 618th Dental Company (Area Support)/Dental Health Activity - Korea. She was also the first female to serve as the Director, Dental Directorate, MEDCOM G-3/5/7, and the first female Principal Deputy to the Assistant Director for Healthcare Administration. In 2023, McGhee-Thondique became the inaugural director of the Defense Health Support Activity, Defense Health Agency.

2007 Laura A. Martinez

BLM Laura Martinez

Appointed the 12th Force Master Chief and the Director of the Hospital Corps in November 2007, Master Chief Laura A. Martinez holds the distinction as the first African American and second woman to serve in this role. Over the course of her 32 years of active service, Martinez held various command executive leadership positions including Command Master Chief of Field Medical Training Battalion-East, National Capitol Area/National Naval Medical Center, and 2nd Marine Logistics Group.

2013 Nadja West

BLM Nada West

In 2013, Lt. Gen. Nadja West became the first black female major general of the Army's active component, and was Army Medicine's first African American female two-star general. In 2015, she was the first African American appointed as the U.S. Army Surgeon General. And, in 2016, Lt. Gen. West became the first black female lieutenant general and the highest-ranking woman to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy.  Learn more about Lt. Gen. Nadja West here.

2017 Cecilia Brown

Cecila Brown BHM comp

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in Sparta, Georgia, Cecilia Brown earned two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate degree in dental surgery. Armed with that extensive educational background, Brown began her military career in the U.S. Air Force, later commissioning into the U.S. Navy. In 2017, Brown became the first African American woman to complete the U.S. Navy Oral and Maxillofacial Surgical residency program and is, to date, the only African American oral surgeon in the U.S. Navy. Brown’s military honors include the Humanitarian Service Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with gold star, and the Meritorious Unit Commendation. For her outstanding achievements as a uniformed dental officer, Brown was awarded the Jeanne Hansen Bayless Uniformed Services Award in 2019.

2018 Audra L. Taylor

BLM Audra L Taylor

Army Col. Audra L. Taylor served as the Division Chief of the Defense Health Agency’s Armed Services Blood Program. Her leadership was instrumental in achieving the Department of Defense’s goal to acquire more than 10,000 units of COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma by Sept. 30, 2020, surpassing the goal set by then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

2023 Telita Crosland

BLM Telita Crosland

Telita Crosland joined the Army as a Medical Corps Officer in 1993. She is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. During her three decades of service, she has garnered the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Joint Service Achievement Medal, Army Staff Badge, and the Parachutist's Badge. On Jan. 3, 2023, U.S. Army Maj. Gen Crosland made history becoming the DHA's fourth director in its nearly 10-year existence, serving also as the first African American DHA director.

2023 Tanya Y. Johnson

BLM Tanya Johnson

Tanya Johnson entered the Air Force in October 1993. She graduated Medical Laboratory Apprentice Technical Training Course in December 1994. Johnson has served as a Clinical Laboratory technician, Protocol Assistant for the 375th Airlift Wing Commander, and Executive Assistant to both the Aeronautical System Center and Air Education and Training Command, Command Chief Master Sergeant. Johnson has deployed in support of Operation United Assistance, Operation Inherent Resolve, and Operation Deliberate Resolve. On March 10, 2023, Chief Master Sergeant Tanya Johnson was ceremoniously named Senior Enlisted Leader of the Defense Health Agency (DHA). She is DHA’s first female enlisted senior leader.

2023 Candice Jones-Cox

BHM Candice Jones-Cox Comp

Candice Jones-Cox joined the U.S. Army as a gynecological surgeon in 2007. For more than a decade, Jones-Cox dedicated herself to specializing in women's reproductive health in the U.S. Army. In April of 2020, Jones-Cox joined the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. In 2021, Jones-Cox became Chief of Women's Health Services at WRNMMC. There, Jones-Cox made history on March 17, 2023, as the first surgeon in DOD to perform a revolutionary robotics surgery for Click to closehysterectomyA partial or total surgical removal of the Click to closeuterusAlso known as the womb, the uterus is the female reproductive organ where a baby grows. uterus. It may also involve removal of the cervix, ovaries, Fallopian tubes, and other surrounding structures. hysterectomy patients called vNotes, which stands for vaginal natural orifice transluminal endoscopic surgery.

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Last Updated: February 02, 2024
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