As we celebrate Black History Month, we at Patientco salute the Black medical pioneers who have made historic contributions to healthcare and advanced the practice of medicine. Today, we celebrate the legacies of two Black medical pioneers, Onesimus and Mae Jemison. 

Black Medical Pioneer, Onesimus Revolutionizes Disease Prevention

This year as we reflect on how COVID-19 has changed the healthcare landscape, the story of one Black medical pioneer, Onesimus is especially relevant. Onesimus was an enslaved African that was gifted to Cotton Mather, a Boston Puritan church minister who had an interest in medicine. Through conversations with Onesimus, Mather learned about the practice of inoculation. Inoculation involves taking a sample from an infected person and scraping it into the skin of an uninfected person. This immunizes the person from the disease. Onesimus showed Mather his scar from his own inoculation.

Armed with this information, Mathers convinced Dr. Zabdiel Bylston to try this new procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721. Together, they inoculated 242 people. While it was not 100% effective, their inoculation efforts delivered much better results than doing nothing at all. This extraordinary contribution to American healthcare by Onesimus has had everlasting effects that we can see even today as we navigate this global pandemic.

Mae Jemison, Medical Doctor & the First Black Woman in Space

Mae Jemison, Black medical pioneer and the first Black woman in spaceMae Jemison was not just a Black medical pioneer. As a doctor, NASA astronaut and the first Black woman in space, she was a trailblazer in more ways than one. However, before becoming an astronaut, Jemison was driven by her interest in healthcare. 

Jemison graduated from Stanford with degrees in chemical engineering and African and African-American Studies. After graduating, she struggled to decide between a career as a doctor or a professional dancer. She ultimately decided to attend medical school at Cornell. Meanwhile, she also enrolled in dance classes at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 

During her time in medical school, Jemison worked in a Cambodia refugee camp in Thailand. Additionally, she worked with the Flying Doctors in Kenya and East Africa to provide emergency medical evacuations. Inspired by her travels in medical school, Jemison joined the Peace Corps upon graduation, serving in Liberia and Sierra Leone. She provided medical care and supervised staff, while working with the CDC to provide research for various vaccines. 

Jemison returned to the U.S. in 1985 and chose to pursue her long-time dream of becoming an astronaut. She applied to NASA’s astronaut training program that year. After completing her training, Jemison had the opportunity to fly into space. She served as a crew member aboard the Endeavor in 1992. During her 127 orbits around the Earth, she conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness in the newly created role of Science Mission Specialist. 

Now that Jemison is back on Earth, she uses her platform to bring attention to the gap in the quality of health care between the U.S. and low-income countries. Her focus on the intersection of socio-cultural issues and science led to Jemison’s career in developing science and technology companies, including a project to advance African health care through satellite and space technology. Jemison continues to advocate strongly in favor of science education and getting minority students interested in science today. 

Recognize the Achievements of Other Trailblazers

Onesimus and Mae Jemison have made impressive and long-lasting contributions to the medical field. However, they are not the only Black medical pioneers that advanced the practice of medicine. There are several other trailblazers whose contributions are worth celebrating. We encourage you to learn more about the achievements of Black Americans in this list from Everyday Health and this article in Becker’s Hospital Review.

Still, Onesimus and Mae Jemison are two Black medical pioneers whose monumental achievements have changed the course of healthcare for good. Their legacies will live on in the medical field and beyond, inspiring future generations to make a positive impact.