The first Black women to pursue careers in the health and medical professions often overcame great odds to become practitioners aiming to provide quality care for their patients who were often African Americans and the indigent.

Before the Civil War, Black women mainly served as informal, untrained medical caregivers whether working as domestics in the North and under their enslavers in the South. Formal medical training for African American women for the most part didn’t exist and they learned their trade from others. During the Civil War, some Black women nursed wounded Union soldiers.

After the Civil War, a small group of Black women decided to seek training to become licensed practitioners. Mary Eliza Mahoney, a Black woman from Dorchester, Massachusetts became the first Black woman to become a certified nurse, according to an article written by Latha Sushi Bhavani and published in February 2021 by Auburn University. In 1879, she became the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing, what is now known as the Dimock Community Health Center. Mahoney underwent a 16-month training program often working a 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. shift while attending classes and observing doctors performing their duties. After becoming certified she worked as a private care nurse.

A former nurse, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, has been recognized as the first Black female physician in the U.S., according to Dr. Lee Markel in a piece, “Celebrating Rebecca Crumpler, first African American Woman Physician” in March 2016. Crumpler, a native of Massachusetts, attended a female prep school in the late 1840s. She moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts to work as a nurse in 1852. Crumpler applied to the New En-

gland Female College in 1860 and graduated in 1864 as its only Black graduate. The school closed in 1873. Crumpler practiced in Boston and post-Civil War Richmond. She lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of New York City, but Markel said it isn’t clear whether she practiced medicine.

While there are no known images of her, Crumpler wrote a book, “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” that was well-received for its commentary on Black maternal health. Crumpler begins the book with a dedication: “To mothers, nurses, and all who mitigate the afflictions of the human race. This book is prayerfully offered.”

The barrier-breaking Crumpler offered suggestions to approach motherhood, such as how to swaddle a baby.

“The face of an infant should never be covered when asleep, especially when in the bed with adults; it induces lung difficulties. The blood must pass through the heart and lungs, uninterrupted, day and night, in order to supply all parts of the body,” she said. I believe that all infants should be supplied with a light covering for the head day and night, until the hair grows out. The old style lace cap, for instance, deserves a conspicuous place among the relics of health preservers.”

When offering advice for a newborn’s first wash she said, “by using oil in the first cleaning, the temperature of the child’s body is not much changed.”

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins is known as the first Black female dentist in the nation, according to an Oregon Health & Science University article, “Women Who Inspire Us: Ida Gray Nelson Rollins.” Rollins was born in Tennessee in 1867 but moved with her family to Ohio. She worked in the dental office of Jonathan Taft as his assistant. When Taft became the first dean of the University of Michigan College of Dentistry, he was open to women coming into the profession and admitted Rollins. In 1890, Rollins graduated from the dental school, becoming the first African American female to hold a doctorate of dental surgery in the country. She returned to Ohio to practice but moved with her husband to Chicago. Rollins resumed her practice in Chicago, where she died in 1953.

James Wright Jr.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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