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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.

1933 Ruth Ella Moore

BLM Ruth Edna Moore

Dr. Ruth Ella Moore was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in the natural sciences. She began her studies earning a B.S. in 1926 and an M.S. in 1927 from Ohio State University. She supported herself during graduate school by teaching English and hygiene at Tennessee State College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville. Her dissertation on tuberculosis earned her a doctorate in bacteriology in 1933 from Ohio State University. Dr. Moore was hired as an assistant professor at Howard University Medical College in 1940 where she chaired the bacteriology department from 1947 to 1958. During her tenure at Howard, she was promoted to associate professor. She continued to teach and conduct research on bacteriology at Howard until she retired in 1973. Her research at Howard focused on blood groups and enterobacteriaceae, a family of bacteria which includes salmonella and E. coli.

You can find more about Dr. Moore 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.

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.

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.

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, CA. Today, Capt. Boamah is the U.S. Third Fleet surgeon for San Diego-based fleet's leadership on all things medical.

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.

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.

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Last Updated: October 30, 2023
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