Logo for the exhibition Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons

Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons

By Erika Mills ~

A historical photograph of three African American men and two African American women operate on an African American man lying on a gurney
Operating room photo from Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital Annual Report, ca. 1900
National Library of Medicine #52711460R

African Americans have always practiced medicine, as physicians, healers, midwives, or “root doctors.” Early black physicians became skilled practitioners, trained generations of physicians, surgeons, and nurses, and improved health care for African American communities. Today’s African American doctors continue the traditions of achievement and mentorship. Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons celebrates the accomplishments of African American medical pioneers and highlights contemporary surgeons and educators who exemplify excellence in their fields and teach future African American physicians. This online exhibition is an adaptation of a 2007 display produced by the National Library of Medicine, in partnership with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

Here are some highlights.

In 1895, African American surgeon, Nathan Mossell, M.D. (1856–1946), founded Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital and Training School, which served the black community in Philadelphia and provided professional opportunities for black physicians and nurses until 1948, when it merged with Mercy Hospital. Dr. Mossell advocated for postgraduate training for physicians, an uncommon practice at the time.

Historical portrait of an African American man
Nathan F. Mossell, M.D., ca. 1882
Courtesy Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives

Levi Watkins, Jr., M.D., (1944-2015) was a cardiac surgeon, professor of cardiac surgery and associate dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and a civil rights activist. He performed the first human implantation of the automatic defibrillator and largely due to his efforts, the minority student population at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine increased by 400% over a four-year period.

Photograph of an African American man instructing with a model heart
Dr. Watkins demonstrates the automatic defibrillator on a heart model, 1980
Courtesy Ebony Magazine

Among academic surgeons today, African Americans hold some of the most prestigious academic surgical positions in the United States. Carla M. Pugh, M.D., is a general surgeon and professor of surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine. She received her medical degree and surgical training at Howard University College of Medicine and received a PhD in Education from Stanford University.

An African American woman performs surgery
Dr. Carla Pugh performing surgery, date unknown
Courtesy Carla M. Pugh, M.D., Ph.D.

For more of Opening Doors, visit the exhibition online. Learn more about NLM exhibitions.

Erika Mills is an exhibit specialist in the Exhibition Program, History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.