9 Black women who have transformed health and wellness throughout history

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For decades, Black women have been outnumbered in fields they stand to gain the most: health and wellness. However, in recent years, a dedicated few have broken barriers in both. 

Ten years ago, Joy Harden Bradford founded Therapy for Black Girls, an online platform to help connect Black women and girls with culturally competent mental health providers and resources. Two years prior, Bea Dixon founded her feminine hygiene brand The Honey Pot, which offers organic pH-balanced sanitary products, washes, and more.  

In 2016, Tricia Hersey launched the Nap Ministry to encourage Black women and people of color to not just prioritize rest but to see it as a tool of resistance. A year later, Tracie Collins founded the National Black Doulas Association in large part to connect Black women and pregnant people with certified Black doulas. Also in 2017, Samia Gore broke ground when she became the first Black woman to get in on the health supplement game, eventually becoming the first Black woman to have supplements sold in The Vitamin Shoppe. During the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, viral immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett made history as a leader in devising the vaccine.

Corbett’s achievements and the progress she represents come on the shoulders of a handful of Black women who have broken historic ground in health and wellness. From devising the technology to treat cataracts to saving Civil War soldiers’ lives to conducting psychological studies integral to the Civil Rights Movement, Black women have managed to be pioneers in health and wellness. In honor of Women’s History Month, theGrio has compiled a list of Black women who have made history in health and wellness.

Joycelyn Elders

Joycelyn Elders was born a sharecropper’s daughter and would go on to become the first Black U.S. Surgeon General in 1993. Before then-President Bill Clinton helped Elders make history by appointing her as the first Black Surgeon General in the nation, she was also the only woman to graduate in her class at the University of Arkansas Medical School in 1960. To this day, Elders continues to advocate for Black physicians. 

Byllye Avery 

American health and reproductive health activist Byllye Avery has spent the bulk of her career working to raise awareness and improve health disparities for Black women and girls. In the early 1980s, Avery launched the National Black Women’s Health Project (which has since been renamed Black Women’s Health Imperative), the first and only national nonprofit solely dedicated to achieving health equity for Black women around the world.

Patricia Bath 

The late Patricia Bath, a doctor, researcher and educator, broke ground in the field of ophthalmology when she observed that blindness was twice as prevalent in Black people than among white people. This discovery led her to dedicate her life’s work to fighting preventable blindness and bringing quality eye care to underserved communities. Bath went on to become the first Black woman ever to receive a medical patent in 1988 for a laser that treats cataracts.  

Jane Cooke Wright 

Before her death in 2013, Jane Cooke Wright became known as the “godmother of chemotherapy” after her pioneering cancer research in the 1950s and ’60s made way for the life-saving chemotherapy still used to treat cancer to this day. In her lifetime, Wright accomplished several “firsts,” including being the first Black woman to be named associate dean of a nationally recognized medical institution (New York Medical College in 1967), the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society, and a becoming founding member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Inez Beverly Prosser 

Inez Beverly Prosser was a psychologist, teacher, and school administrator. She became the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in psychology, and her work was instrumental to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Prosser’s remarkable life was tragically cut short before she turned 40. 

Helen Octavia Dickens

Born the daughter of a formerly enslaved person, the late Helen Octavia Dickens became a pioneer of Black women’s health. In 1945, Dickens became the first Black woman OB/GYN in Philadelphia, empowering teen mothers and the disadvantaged, and was at the forefront of developing the Pap smear to better screen for reproductive complications, including cervical cancer. Before her death in 2001, Dickens also became the first Black woman to be named a fellow by the American College of Surgeons.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

In 1864, after studying at the New England Female Medical College, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman to become a doctor of medicine in America. In her lifetime, Crumpler was a nurse, doctor, and author. While little is known about her life outside of her career, Crumpler left behind an integral text educating women and children on health, which is credited for being one of the first medical publications by an African-American, the “Book of Medical Discourses.” 

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Henrietta Lacks

When, in 1951, a 31-year-old Black mother of five visited Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the only hospitals that would treat poor Black people at the time, no one could predict she would ultimately become one of the most important figures in modern healthcare. After complaining of vaginal bleeding, it was discovered that Henrietta Lacks had a large malignant tumor on her cervix; her cells were unknowingly donated as part of a diverse group of patients whose cancer cells were being studied at the time. However, unlike other subjects in the study, Lacks’ cells didn’t die; instead, they multiplied at a rate that made them ideal for testing. To this day, Lacks’ cells are used to test and study diseases and treatment effects on human cells without having to test on actual living humans. Her cells have been instrumental in creating many vaccines, including those for polio and COVID-19. 

Despite the enormous contribution her “immortal” cells have made to medicine, Lacks’ is also a famous case of an individual exploited by the healthcare industry, a wrong Johns Hopkins now vows to right. 

Harriet Tubman

From escaping from slavery in 1849 to becoming a spy in the Civil War, Harriet Tubman was a pioneer several times over. The bold woman of history, who is reportedly responsible for freeing roughly 70 people from slavery through the Underground Railroad (and inspiring many more), is also celebrated for her legacy in healthcare. In addition to being an instrumental spy, Tubman also worked as a nurse during the Civil War. She used home remedies passed down through generations and ingenuity to save several soldiers under her care from various ailments that could have been fatal. The abolitionist also took her medical skills to South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse and a teacher for the Gullah people after their owners abandoned them during the war. Before her death in 1913, Tubman would go on to advocate for healthcare for Black people, eventually building The Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly, where she cared for residents until her dying breath. 


Kay Wicker is a lifestyle writer for theGrio covering health, wellness, travel, beauty, fashion, and the myriad ways Black people live and enjoy their lives. She has previously created content for magazines, newspapers, and digital brands. 

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