A strong public health system is crucial to communities’ resiliency in times of calm and especially after an emergency. In honor of 2022’s Black History Month theme, Black Health and Wellness, we recognize four African American trailblazers who have helped build the field of public health in the United States and beyond. Black History Month is a celebration of these pioneers, and many others, as we mark their immense contributions to their fields.
Trailblazing African Americans in Public Health
Alice Augusta Ball
Alice Ball is best known for her research that led to the creation of the first injectable leprosy treatment proving successful in alleviating symptoms associated with leprosy and forever changing the treatment of this highly contagious disease.
Ball was an African American chemist who earned degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington between 1912-1914. She was offered a teaching and research position at a college known today as the University of Hawaii. Impressively, at the age of 23, she became the institution’s first female chemistry instructor. It was at this time when she conducted her lifesaving research.
Unfortunately, Ball died at the age of 24 and didn’t live to see how successful her discovery had become. It was only many years later that her achievements were widely recognized. The Ball Method was used for over 30 years until Sulfones became available.
Dr. Hildrus Poindexter
Dr. Hildrus Poindexter was a specialist in tropical diseases, epidemiology, and microbiology in the public health field. He was the first African American to receive an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1929 and a Ph.D. in 1932 while attending Columbia University. He completed his internship at the John A. Andrew Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, one of the few centers that accepted African American students at the time.
Working with the Bullock County community in Alabama, Poindexter studied local epidemiology and was able to identify widespread health conditions affecting African Americans working and living in the rural South. His ability to communicate across multiple sectors and stakeholders such as health boards, religious institutions, and schools meant that he could improve health and make a significant difference.
While serving in World War II, he became an expert on infectious diseases like malaria and schistosomiasis. His work in the Solomon Islands gained him a Bronze Star for implementing an infection control program that saw the rate of malaria infections reduce by a staggering 86.4 percent. After retiring in 1965, he continued to teach community health classes and in 1973 wrote his autobiography, My World of Reality.
Dr. Charles Richard Drew
An African-American physician, researcher, and surgeon, Dr. Charles Richard Drew is renowned for his pioneering work in the preservation of blood plasma. While earning his doctorate at Columbia University in 1938, Drew and his mentor, John Scudder, focused their research on blood chemistry and preservation. This resulted in Drew’s doctoral dissertation, “Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation.” This work led to Drew being the first African American to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia.
His doctoral research into the storage, processing, and shipment of blood plasma was responsible for revolutionizing our understanding of blood preservation and paved the way to saving thousands of lives during World War II. His work both during and after the war, including the innovation of “bloodmobiles” to collect mobile blood donations, has led people to call him the “father of the blood bank.” He died tragically from an automobile accident at the age of 45 before he could further contribute to his incredible legacy.
Dr. Regina Marcia Benjamin
Dr. Regina Marcia Benjamin may be best known for her tenure as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General from 2009-2013. In this role, Benjamin led the operational command of 6500 uniformed public health officers who served around the world. She was also chair of the National Prevention Council which was made up of 17 cabinet-level Federal agencies that developed a road map for the Nation’s health called the National Prevention Strategy.
In addition to her service as U.S. Surgeon General, Benjamin has spent much of her career focusing her attention on public health in rural southern communities. In 1990, she became founder and CEO of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. This clinic provides social services, clinical care, and health education to the residents of the small fishing town. Benjamin is quoted as saying about the clinic, “making a difference in my community by providing a clinic where patients can come and receive health care with dignity.”
In addition to her continued work with the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, Benjamin currently serves as the Founder and CEO of the Gulf States Health Policy Center and the NOLA.com Endowed Chair of Public Health Sciences at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Celebrating Diversity at Juvare
At Juvare, we are honored to work every day with a diverse community of public health, emergency management, government, private-sector, and armed forces professionals. We are grateful for the opportunity to do our part in helping our communities prepare, connect, and respond. If you’re looking to join our team, click here to see roles we are currently recruiting for.