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Historical Perspectives on African American Physicians in Hematology

Early work by African American physicians on SCD provided important insights that are still valid today and that laid the groundwork for contemporary screening and management approaches for patients with SCD. In 1937, Dr. William Cardozo published a groundbreaking paper “Immunologic Studies of Sickle Cell Anemia” in Archives of Internal Medicine and reported that SCD was largely familial and inherited and almost exclusively affected people of African descent. Dr. Charles Whitten was among the first to develop and insist on newborn screening for SCD, which is now performed worldwide. Work by Dr. James Bowman, father of President Barack Obama’s Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, unearthed the importance of ethical sickle cell screening, education, and the potential for harm as a result of screening programs. He also helped bring about the inception of Comprehensive Sickle Cell Centers in the 1970s. Dr. Yvette Francis-McBarnette broke barriers for women and African Americans in medicine as the second black female student to enroll in the Yale School of Medicine in 1946. She is also credited with the use of prophylactic antibiotics in children with SCD 15 years before their effectiveness was confirmed in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

African American physicians have played important roles in other areas of hematology such as blood banking. Pioneering research by Dr. Charles Drew in the 1940s led to his recognition as the “Father of Blood Banking.” Dr. Drew showed that plasma could be dried and reconstituted when needed, and he created the first centralized locations for blood collections from donors during World War II. As a result of his work, standardized procedures for blood processing and long-term preservation and storage were developed and adapted by the American Red Cross, leading to the American Red Cross Blood Bank.

As an advocate for minority health issues, including SCD, Dr. Louis Sullivan recognized that many diseases disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities and underscored the important role that physicians from the same racial and ethnic minority groups play in the care of affected patients. In an effort to increase the number of African Americans in the physician workforce, Dr. Sullivan founded the Morehouse School of Medicine in 1975, originally as part of Morehouse College, a historically black institution. In 1989, Dr. Sullivan was appointed Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and in this capacity, was pivotal in increasing gender and ethnic diversity in senior positions throughout DHHS.