Prominence of Black Medical Excellence and Why it Matters Now

Dr. Jennaire Lewars speaks about the black experience in medicine, touching on triumphs, obstacles, and innovation.
February 15, 2021
11 min read

We have been graced with the opportunity to observe and experience for another year, the memorable and evolving month of recognition and appreciation for the experience and history of African Americans known as Black History Month. The past year presented the importance of this month with a unique sense of imperativeness and simply, this year’s Black History Month feels different. We spend most of Black History Month looking to a distant past that often feels as recent as our present days. Too often, our present is reminiscent of our predecessor’s afflictions which manifest themselves in countless forms.

In the past year we have seen protests across the globe, marches upon Capitol Hill, unity across the spectrum of races, genders, creeds, and tones alike, all in the recognition of the fact that the lives of persons of color, black lives, do in fact matter. As we observe and embrace our history and heritage, it is also important to highlight the modern history made as recent as our past year, which even includes this very day, Inauguration Day 2021, as I commence the penning of this message. I’d like to take time to acknowledge the lives lost such as Mr. George Floyd, Ms. Breonna Taylor, and those who unfortunately have not made it to mainstream headlines. Additionally, we acknowledge the black experience and embrace the solidarity exhibited as well as the unity erected out of the ensuing yearning to end the division of our country.

I believe it is so important now more than ever, to speak on the black experience from the aspect of triumph, the surmounting of all obstacles, the history of innovation and invocation of absolute excellence of persons of color that has shone brightly without hindrance in the world. Commencing with my own experience, I am a doctor, particularly a first-generation doctor, but first and foremost, I am a black male. I am Jamaican, also considered an African-American or Afro-Canadian. My family and I immigrated to Canada from Jamaica. I grew up in a small inner city community on the west side of Toronto, where access to opportunities such as minority mentorship or role models were not prominent aspects during my upbringing.

It is a fact that only 5.0% of physicians in the United States, and within my Canadian province of Ontario, only 2.3%, identify themselves as black or African American or Afro-Canadian, with virtually no statistics on Jamaican or Caribbean born physicians living in North America. In seeking within my environment for opportunities of growth and guidance, I grew up not seeing anyone that looked like what I aspired to be, a black male physician. For this, my goals were born out of dreams not demonstration, to be a caregiver for a diverse population in a system whose physician population pales in diversity itself.

My greatest mentors, supporters, and inspirations, my parents, instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic backed by faith and are still my role models as I course through life. My mother who I watched work her way through nursing school and my father paving his way as a small business owner were my displays of black excellence. Their mantra of discipline and dedication still pushes me to pursue my dreams as I plan to specialize in interventional cardiology. Seeing myself become a doctor in the United States after so much hard work and sacrifices from my family combined with the opportunities that I’ve been afforded, I feel invigorated.

I know that I have not only transcended generational barriers in my family by making my own history in becoming the first doctor in my family, but I have also transcended society’s expectation of me as a black male. Coming from an inner city neighborhood where at the time access to extra-curricular educational opportunities, community support, and positive influence lacked, the expectation held of me was subpar to my own ambitions. In the medical field, I have often found myself as the lone person of color with a white coat whether on medical school rotations or within clinics. Many of the patients I interfaced with commented on their reassurance and feeling of comfort in seeing someone that simply looked like them overseeing their care. I believe that having more persons of color holding physician positions is imperative as there is an identification made from the aspects of empathy without inherent bias and understanding of shared experience as part of patient-centred care for minority populations which enhances the quality of their care.

We can’t know what we aren’t exposed to, and without seeing or knowing the prominence of people of color in our society, how could we emulate? This is what heightens the importance of such examples presented before us. Our environments have the ability to shape our outlook on life, and without a strong, prominent black voice in my community to tell us that we could dream beyond what we could see or teach us of our contributions to this world, many have suffered the belief that our ambitions are too far out of reach. Hence, it is vital for young black children, adolescents, and adults to see examples of those that look like themselves accomplishing more and more in society. I was raised to know that we are more than our circumstances and that as minorities, we are not in any regard minor, as we empower ourselves to put dreams in motion.

My goal is to now be one of the reassuring voices in my community, to stand amongst prominent figures of color that strive to live a life reflective of positivity, that motivates others of my likeness or upbringing to reach even beyond the stars. My aim is to be a part of the cultural change that embraces diversity in society and in health care and to care for patients as a physician with a genuine love for those from all walks of life.

We find ourselves striving beyond the norm, claiming our own stake in history, shaping the outlook of our society and our health care. We have proudly contributed much to the world and have had our hand in the outlook of health care from times past and for generations to come. Thus, it is reassuring to watch these barriers being broken as we find ourselves as not just participants in history, but pioneers within it. They often say that if we don’t know our history we are bound to repeat it. In this case though, this is history to be known in order for its repetition and emulation as I would be more than pleased to see the continual progression and instances of success and history made reflecting black excellence.

With this, I’d like to acknowledge the greatness on display in the medical arena thanks to the hands of African Americans. I would like to highlight a few prominent physicians and inventors that have paved the way for much of the luxuries that we afforded in medicine today as well as in our general society.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Firstly let’s highlight Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who was an American physician and author. In 1864 she became the first African-American woman to become a doctor in the United States. Born in 1831 in Delaware, Dr. Crumpler moved to Charlestown, Massachusetts where she worked as a nurse for 8 years prior to pursuing and receiving her medical education from New England Female Medical College and attaining her M.D. Subsequent to the civil war, she served to join other black physicians caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have no access to medical care while working with the Freedmen's Bureau, and other missionary organizations.

Daniel Hales Williams, MD
Daniel Hales Williams, MD

Daniel Hales Williams, MD, born in 1858 in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania was a general surgeon and was identified as a cardiologist who founded the first black-owned hospital in America, the first African American inducted into the American College of Surgeons, and is credited with performing the world’s first successful open heart surgery. Starting out as a shoemaker in his youth, Dr. Williams ultimately pursued secondary school in Wisconsin, became an apprentice to a former general surgeon in Wisconsin, and then studied medicine at Chicago Medical College. Dr. Williams spent much of his career serving the Chicago area and founded the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Chicago, the country’s first interracial hospital and nursing school. In 1893, efforts to save a young Chicagoan suffering from a thoracic knife wound, Dr. Williams performed an operation that would be known as the first successful open heart surgery giving his patient the opportunity to live another 20 years subsequent to what prior would have been an utterly fatal knife wound to the heart.

Dr. William Augustus Hinton
Dr. William Augustus Hinton

Dr. William Augustus Hinton born in 1883, in Chicago, Illinois was a bacteriologist, pathologist and educator. Born as the son of two former slaves, he overcame poverty and racial prejudice in medicine as he became the first African American professor in the history of Harvard University. Dr. Hinton was a staple in the field of public health as he pioneered medical diagnostic modalities by developing a test for syphilis in the 1920s that held such accuracy in confirmatory diagnosis, that it was used by the United States Public Health Service. Dr. William Augustus Hinton was also the father of Dr. Jane Hinton, another revolutionary figure in modern medicine who will be referred to shortly.

Dr. Jane Hinton
Dr. Jane Hinton

Dr. Jane Hinton, born in 1919, in Canton, Massachusetts was an American veterinarian, namely the first African American woman to become a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in the United States. She was the daughter of the great bacteriologist Dr. William Augustus Hinton and utilized his influence and teachings as she pursued her own feat to greatness. Dr. Hinton received her early education in various parts of Europe, before returning to the US and subsequently received her medical education from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Hinton worked in her father’s laboratory and as an assistant to John Howard Mueller at Harvard and co-developed the Mueller-Hinton Agar, a culture medium that has become one of the standard methods used to test bacterial resistance to antibiotics and for the diagnosis of bacterial infections such as Neisseria gonorrhoeae which is central to the field of medicine today.

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr.
Dr. Levi Watkins Jr.

Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., born in 1944, in Parsons, Kansas, was an American heart surgeon and civil rights activist. Dr. Watkins is known to be the first surgeon to successfully implant an automatic defibrillator in a human patient. Dr. Watkins Jr. was the first black chief resident of cardiac surgery at John Hopkins University. He was committed to shaping the institution’s role in medical education as he actively recruited African American students from all over the nation, launching a concerted nationwide drive and campaign to attract black students interested in pursuing medicine.

Dr. Patricia Bath
Dr. Patricia Bath

Dr. Patricia Bath, born in 1942, in New York, New York was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, the first female ophthalmologist to be appointed to the faculty of UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. Dr. Bath also founded the discipline of community ophthalmology and was also the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent. She invented the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment in 1986. Dr. Bath’s work and initiatives have saved the sight of thousands and she even managed to restore the sight of a woman who had been blind for 30 years by implanting a keratoprosthesis while on a humanitarian mission to North Africa.

Marie Van Brittan Brown
Marie Van Brittan Brown

Another inventor to be highlighted is Marie Van Brittan Brown, born in 1922, in Jamaica, Queens, New York, the inventor of the first home security system. She is also credited with the invention of the first closed circuit television. Her work influenced the modern home security systems that are utilized today. Ms. Brown worked as a nurse by occupation, and her husband was an electronic technician. As they experienced the high crime rates in their neighborhood, in recognition of their atypical work schedules as well as slow response times in events of emergency, Ms. Brown became determined to create a system that would allow her to know who was at her home and contact the relevant authorities as promptly as possible. In 1969, her application for a patent titled “Home Security System Utilizing Television Surveillance” was approved.

I am glad and reassured in stating that this is not an exhaustive list, and there are many other prominent names of African American men and women that have made discoveries, inventions, and opportunities that provide many of the luxuries that we are afforded today. This black history month, I believe that it is just ever so important to continue to not only highlight, but even make known of the influence and impact that individuals such as these have had in our lives without us having any knowledge of their roles. I am honored and beaming with pride knowing that so many African Americans have laid such a framework for us in everyday life as well as in the medical arena which shapes and governs the way we practice medicine today. I am grateful for the opportunity to share this all with you, and hope to continually witness the impact of the influence of these great people in our world each day.



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