Therapeutic Fingers — the Historical past, and Future, of Black Medical doctors at Penn

Eve Higginbotham
Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, ML

College students come to the Perelman College of Drugs wanting to study the artwork and science of medication. To change into actually well-rounded medical doctors, although, they’re smart to additionally examine historical past—together with the contributions that Black college students, physicians have made to Penn Drugs, the town of Philadelphia, and the occupation as a complete. As a result of for a lot too lengthy, so many vital figures in medical historical past had been missed or underappreciated, regardless of the additional hardships they overcame to succeed primarily based on their marginalized backgrounds.

Turning into immersed within the tales of those pioneers has actual and useful that means, as Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, ML, vice dean for Inclusion, Range and Fairness within the Perelman College of Drugs (PSOM) on the College of Pennsylvania, identified in a current Penn Drugs journal article: “Historical past issues. Phrases matter. Having all of our pivotal predecessors appropriately represented, being reflective of the phrases we use, being reflective of whose histories we honor via using their names and private narratives, are all a part of the best way we are able to acknowledge and reaffirm our dedication to inclusivity.”

Born Into Slavery, Then a Doctor Pioneer

Penn’s medical college opened its doorways in 1765, and graduated simply 10 college students in 1768; nevertheless, neither ladies or folks of shade had been represented amongst these first graduates. However throughout the late 1700s, some Black practitioners had been offering medical care, together with one Philadelphia native who performed a small however attention-grabbing half in Penn’s medical schooling historical past.

James Derham, who is taken into account the primary Black doctor in the US, was enslaved from the time of his beginning and through the years by varied medical doctors who skilled him in drugs. In 1783, whereas nonetheless enslaved, he was transferred to a doctor in New Orleans who he served as an assistant. Derham then purchased his freedom and opened up his personal follow, till a person who would go on to change into one in all Penn’s most well-known college members inspired him to come back residence.

“I conversed with him on drugs and surgical procedure and located him realized,” stated famend Penn professor, Continental Military Surgeon Normal, and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush , in accordance with a historic report from the Journal of the Nationwide Medical Affiliation, after a go to to New Orleans. “I believed I may give him data regarding the remedy of illness, however I realized extra from him than he may anticipate from me.”  

In 1788, Derham returned to Philadelphia and have become a widely known throat illness professional, however headed again to New Orleans shortly thereafter to assist combat the yellow fever epidemic.

Derham and Rush, who was now educating on the medical college, continued to correspond through letters, exchanging concepts — and even a pamphlet on find out how to deal with rooster pox — and different private issues. Rush, who adamantly opposed slavery, seems to have realized lots about drugs from Derham. He was reportedly so impressed with Derham’s capacity to deal with diphtheria sufferers, that he learn Derham’s paper on the illness earlier than the Faculty of Physicians of Philadelphia, although they snubbed the content material. Later, it was believed that Derham was shut down by native authorities in New Orleans due to an absence of an official medical diploma, after which he disappeared from historic information. He was thought to have died of a coronary heart assault in 1802.

Standout College students

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Nathan Francis Mossell, MD Photograph credit score: College of Pennsylvania Archives

One of the noteworthy occasions subsequent on the varsity’s timeline occurred in 1879, the 12 months it admitted a Black man for the primary time.

A standout amongst his friends, Nathan Francis Mossell, MD, took second honors in his graduating class and was skilled first by D. Hayes Agnew, MD, an anatomy professor and chair of Surgical procedure at Penn, within the Outpatient Surgical Clinic of the College Hospital. As described in a 2017 Penn Drugs Information Weblog put up about Mossell, the expertise wasn’t with out drama — even with out the ostracism he confronted from some (however not all) college students, he realized that no less than one college member had voted towards his admission. This motivated him to work even tougher, to show his detractors unsuitable: I ready myself so totally on the themes, taught by these whom I suspected; it could have been not possible for them to flunk me with out committing rank injustice.

After leaving the colonies for Europe to safe an internship after commencement — it was a lot simpler for Black physicians to coach abroad — Mossell returned to Philadelphia in 1888 and was elected to the Philadelphia County Medical Society, making him the primary Black doctor to attain this honor.

He based the nation’s second Black hospital, at which he made it some extent to incorporate feminine physicians — the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Coaching College, a forerunner of the town’s Mercy Douglass Hospital. Mossell additionally helped discovered the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. Immediately, Mossell’s legacy lives on at Penn because the title of one of many 4 “homes” designed to foster interplay between courses in PSOM.

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Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Coaching College Photograph credit score: College of Pennsylvania Archives

Though Mossell was probably the most outstanding Black scholar of his time at Penn, it’s additionally price mentioning one in all his contemporaries, Albert Monroe Wilson, who Mossell described as a person with “appreciable capacity” in his biography. Wilson was not formally enrolled within the medical college, however he was permitted to attend most of the lectures throughout the finish of his tenure at Penn, the place he labored as a janitor, a messenger, and finally a laboratory assistant within the medical college. Wilson was charged with establishing gear for professor John Fries Frazer’s lectures and experiments in chemistry and physics. He went on to change into a revered “medical healer” within the Black neighborhood.

Trailblazing Girls

Helen O. Dickens, MD, wearing a white coat and seated at a desk in 1947
Dickens, a doctor and advocate for ladies’s well being, preventive care, and well being fairness for Black ladies and women, was influential in her occupation from the Thirties till her loss of life in 2001. The picture was offered courtesy of Dickens’ daughter, Jayne Henderson Brown, MD.

In1959, the primary Black lady was accepted into the varsity of medication at Penn. In the course of the years of her medical coaching, the Civil Rights motion was in full swing, with many faculties and universities lastly opening the doorways to ladies and other people of shade following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the 12 months that Arlene Bennett, MD, graduated from Penn. Bennett, a Philadelphia native, had joined the US Air Pressure as a radio mechanic so she may attend school via the G.I Invoice. One in all solely six ladies in her class at Penn (and the one lady of shade), after her commencement she went on to change into a profitable psychiatrist in personal follow which included a stint in Neighborhood Psychological Well being at Pennsylvania Hospital.

In 2014, she spoke at PSOM’s graduation, which additionally marked her 50th 12 months since graduating, and in December of that 12 months acquired the Elizabeth Kirk Rose award on the annual Girls in Drugs luncheon at Penn for her work. When accepting the award, she paused to notice how far the varsity had come when it comes to inclusivity and fairness: “It’s a pleasure to see so many ladies, and so many ladies of shade, among the many ranks of scholars and up to date alumni.”

One other vital milestone in Penn’s historical past passed off 5 years after Bennett graduated, although this physician’s affect dates additional again than that. In 1969, Helen Octavia Dickens, MD, grew to become the medical college’s first African-American feminine full professor. Dickens is a determine whose significance to PSOM has just lately been pushed to a brand new place of prominence via an expanded biographical show surrounding her portrait in a brand new, central location in Penn’s Stemmler Corridor — the main target of a current Penn Drugs journal characteristic story by the exhibit’s curator.

A man and a woman dressed in matching black T-shirts lift the portrait of Helen O. Dickens into place within an expanded exhibit housing, while a man on a stepladder does work on the display backdrop.
The expanded exhibit and new residence for Dickens’ portrait had been put in in late August 2021 and devoted in early December.

Dickens was a lady of firsts. Earlier than coming to Penn, she labored as an obstetrician/gynecologist, together with stints on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital based by Nathan Mossell and its successor, Mercy Douglass, and within the Nineteen Forties she grew to become an early proponent of Pap smear testing for most cancers prevention. In 1945, she grew to become the primary African-American lady to obtain a Grasp of Medical Science diploma from Penn’s now-defunct Graduate College of Drugs, and 5 years later she grew to become the primary African-American lady admitted to the American Faculty of Surgeons.

The daughter of a home servant and a janitor who was previously enslaved, Dickens joined Penn Drugs’s Obstetrics and Gynecology division in 1956 and have become the primary feminine African-American board-certified OB/GYN in Philadelphia. She later went on to discovered the Teen Clinic on the College of Pennsylvania, offering look after school-age moms within the metropolis and advocating for household planning and contraception. She additionally established the Workplace of Minority Affairs in 1969, serving as affiliate dean, and inside 5 years had elevated minority enrollment from 3 college students to 64. The founding of that workplace has preserved the varsity’s dedication to range and inclusion via the Nineteen Seventies, 80s, and 90s as much as in the present day. 

Striving Towards Fairness

Constructing off that dedication, in 2013, Higginbotham was named the primary Vice Dean for Inclusion, Range, and Fairness at PSOM’s renamed Workplace of Minority Affairs, highlighting the significance of an institutional local weather in constructing a extra numerous PSOM neighborhood. The Workplace coordinates and interacts with numerous packages geared toward constructing a tradition of inclusion, together with Inclusion, Range, Fairness, and Learner Expertise Program in Medical Schooling (IDEAL MEd) led by Horace DeLisser, MD, an affiliate professor of Drugs and affiliate dean for Range and Inclusion.

Along with Dwaine Duckett, the primary Black vice chairman for Human Sources on the College of Pennsylvania Well being System, Higginbotham serves as a frontrunner of the Motion for Cultural Transformation (ACT), which seeks to remodel Penn Drugs into an anti-racist, equitable, numerous, and inclusive establishment.

It’s work properly price doing. Over 100 years in the past, Mossell famous that widespread stories of his story helped encourage different younger Black college students within the space to make the leaps he made: “There have been about 5 coloured physicians serving the town [64 years ago]. Three of those had been common graduates. Now there are greater than 2 hundred training coloured physicians.”

Nonetheless in the present day, illustration nonetheless issues, in a really tangible means, for younger folks focused on drugs. On the event of her commencement from PSOM in 2019, Kenyan-born scholar Ivy Maina, MD, now a Penn Otorhinolaryngology resident, penned these phrases within the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Fifty-five years in the past, Dr. Arlene Bennett grew to become the primary Black lady to graduate from the Perelman College of Drugs on the College of Pennsylvania. Via her perseverance, she paved the best way for thus many ladies who appear to be me. I’ll be proudly strolling in her footsteps as I cross the stage throughout commencement in Could.”

Editor’s notice: This put up has been up to date and expanded from an earlier model, initially by Steve Graff and revealed in 2015.

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