APU Health & Fitness Original

African American Doctors: Their Important Contributions to Medicine

By Dr. Kevin Harris
Faculty Member, Cybersecurity, Information Systems Security and Information Technology

This article is the first of a three-part science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pioneer series, highlighting African American contributions in the fields of medicine, technology, and mathematics.

COVID-19 has impacted our world in many ways. However, the importance of science has certainly been at the forefront of most conversations.

Researchers around the world have collaborated to identify the coronavirus, develop mitigation strategies and ultimately develop a vaccine to fight this ongoing threat to our way of life. This truly all hands-on approach provides an opportunity to remember that the science community is made up of a diverse population, a diversity that must continue to be cultivated.

As an African American in the STEM field, I encourage others to consider the sciences as a career. There have been many important African American pioneers in the medical field, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Dr. Julian Herman Lewis and Dr. Levin Watkins.

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett: One of the Developers of the Moderna Vaccine

While some people in communities of color have questioned the COVID-19 vaccine because of previous medical injustices, it is important to note that one of the researchers who developed the Moderna vaccine was Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. Dr. Corbett has a distinguished career in biological science.

When she joined the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Corbett stated in a press release that “Vaccines are the great equalizer when it comes to addressing health disparities, especially around infectious diseases.” Having a member from a community of color involved with coronavirus vaccine research has not only increased the vaccine’s credibility, but also recognizes the need for the medical field to be inclusive in order to achieve the greatest results. Dr. Corbett is a trailblazer and is helping to protect all of us from the ongoing pandemic threat.

Dr. Julian Herman Lewis: The First African American to Earn a Ph.D. and an M.D.

The sentiment of medicine being an equalizer was echoed in an earlier era by the son of a freed slave – Dr. Julian Herman Lewis. Dr. Lewis was the first African American to earn both a Ph.D. and an M.D.

Dr. Lewis completed his Ph.D. in physiology and pathology at the University of Chicago in 1915. In 1917, he obtained his M.D. from Rush University.

Due to racism in American society, Dr. Lewis’s research was met with much resistance at the time. He worked to dispel the lie that African Americans were an inferior race and also sought to overcome bias in the medical community, looking to science to prove equality. His work helped the medical community to recognize how pathogens and disease impact individuals with different ethnic backgrounds, and it led to an ability to develop more effective treatments.

Dr. Levin Watkins: The First to Implant an Automatic Defibrillator in a Cardiac Patient

Today’s medical providers can monitor and treat patients at a distance, thanks to wearable and implantable devices. Dr. Levin Watkins was another African American pioneer in this area.

In partnership with African American colleague Vivien Thomas, Dr. Watkins was the first physician to implant an automatic defibrillator in a cardiac patient. While implantable devices are common today, the work of these two gentlemen laid the groundwork for many of the medical advances we see today.

Dr. Watkins was the first African American to graduate from Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine before going on to become the first African American Chief Resident of Cardiac Surgery at John Hopkins University. He served as a friend, advisor and mentor to many medical professionals. One of those mentees was Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, the current President/CEO of Meharry Medical College, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in Nashville, Tennessee.

Motivating Others to Pursue Careers in STEM Fields

The forging of personal and professional relationships is imperative for both career growth and career interest. My niece is interested in pursuing a career in veterinarian science, and her choice of career was strongly influenced by other family members in the healthcare field, including a mother and an aunt.

By highlighting a few African American pioneers in the STEM fields, I hope that this series will serve as a starting point for individual research on the many contributions that have been made to society by these trailblazers. I also hope to motivate others to become the next STEM pioneer.

About the Author

Dr. Kevin Harris is a faculty member in the School of STEM, teaching classes in cybersecurity, information systems security and information technology. With over 25 years of industry experience, Dr. Harris has protected a variety of organizational infrastructure and data in positions ranging from systems analyst to chief information officer.

His career encompasses diverse experiences both in information technology and academia. His research and passion are in the areas of cybersecurity, bridging the digital divide, and increasing diversity in the tech community. As an academic leader, Dr. Harris instructed students at various types of institutions, including community colleges, HBCUs, public, private, graduate, undergraduate and online. He has trained faculty from multiple institutions in the area of cybersecurity as part of an NSF multistate CSEC grant.

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