February is a month dedicated to honoring and celebrating Black accomplishments, impacts, and Black Americans everywhere. Every year Black History Month has a theme that focuses on different aspects of the Black community. The theme for 2022 is Black Health and Wellness. This theme concentrates on contributions the Black community has made to the healthcare world and actions they have taken to promote wellness.
There have been countless Black medical heroes who have made great impacts on the world of medicine. Being a man of firsts, Dr. James McCune Smith, was a trailblazer for Black people in healthcare. From 1835 to 1837, Smith earned three degrees from the University of Glasgow located in Scotland. He was the first African American to receive a medical degree, own a pharmacy, and be published in medical journals. Smith was also a renowned abolitionist who used his writings to scientifically discredit racist beliefs, such as those in Thomas Jeffereson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Another Black medical heroine is Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a young mother who died of cervical cancer in 1951. During treatment, samples of her cancer cells were taken without consent, and they were found to be “immortal,” meaning the cell line was durable and long lasting. The cell's longevity allowed numerous scientific experiments and studies to be conducted. This significant discovery was made after Lacks lost her life to cancer, and her family was not made aware of this for almost two decades. Although unbeknownst to her, Lacks’ contribution to medicine has led to advancements in vaccines for HPV and polio, medication for HIV/AIDS, and Covid-19 responses. This particular type of immortalized cells are now known as HeLa cells, named after Lacks. The Lacks family carries on her legacy through the advocacy for equitable healthcare and access to HPV vaccines.
Black history plays a tremendous role in American history and should be studied along with it all year; however, having a month to focus on the often lesser-known and forgotten history of African Americans is crucial. Black doctors, nurses, patients, and many more have an innumerable impact on healthcare, and it is only right to honor their legacy and bring awareness to those who have shaped the modern world of medicine.
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