5 Black Healthcare Leaders to Know

Sep 22, 2021


Alto Pharmacy

black history month illustration with influential people featured
black history month illustration with influential people featured
black history month illustration with influential people featured

At Alto, part of our work is to redefine the modern pharmacy to make sure patients from all backgrounds have reliable, affordable access to the medications they need. This extends to fostering a culture of inclusion in healthcare and honoring the Black leaders who have transformed the medical field. For Black History Month, we’re recognizing pivotal Black leaders in healthcare who’ve paved the way forward for our country and the Black community.

Black Healthcare Leaders Who’ve Paved The Way 

Dating back to the 19th century, there have been many Black individuals who, despite discrimination and prejudice, have made a profound impact in healthcare. From hospital bedsides to the front lines of the abolitionist and suffragist movements, here are five Black pioneers in healthcare you should know.

James McCune Smith: The first Black doctor in the U.S.

When James McCune Smith showed potential and promise at a young age, his parish collectively raised funds so he could afford to attend university. Because of his race, he wasn’t allowed to attend school in the U.S., so he earned his baccalaureate, master’s, and medical degrees from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. 

Not only did Smith become the first Black doctor to practice medicine in the U.S., but he was also the first Black physician to publish articles in U.S. medical journals. In addition, he penned and edited articles for abolitionist newspapers including “A Lecture on the Haitian Revolution” (1841) and “The Destiny of the People of Color” (1843). He worked closely with Frederick Douglass and the two founded the National Council of Colored People. As a highly-educated Black physician and scholar, Smith was a key figure in not only abolishing slavery, but also in helping make its success credible.

Mary Eliza Mahoney: The first Black licensed nurse in the US

Mary Mahoney, born to freed slaves in 1845, learned the importance of racial equality at a young age. This became her reason for pursuing nursing school: to fight for and serve women and the Black community.

After years as a janitor, cook, and washer woman at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, she was accepted into their nursing program. The program was so demanding that only four of 42 students finished—Mahoney was one of them. And with that she made history as the first Black woman to become a licensed nurse

She earned many accolades in healthcare, became a member of the American Nurses Association (ANA), and co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), where she was an elected leader. The NACGN was later absorbed into the ANA in 1951. Mahoney spent her days caring for those in need at the hospital and her nights campaigning for women’s suffrage. Her efforts were so influential that after her death, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame alongside her fellow suffragists in Seneca Falls, NY. 

Dr. James Hildreth: President & CEO of Meharry Medical College 

A leader in immunology, Dr. James Hildreth leads Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee — one of only four Black medical schools in the country. Their mission is to create more opportunities in medicine for the Black community. Hildreth is renowned around the globe for his decades of influential HIV research as well as his work to fight the global COVID-19 pandemic. He was recently appointed to the FDA’s COVID-19 Vaccine Review Committee.

Hildreth earned his Bachelor’s at Harvard, his Ph.D. in immunology from Oxford and became the first Rhodes scholar from Arkansas who was Black. He joined the Advisory Board at Alto in August to help reimagine the pharmacy experience as one of its two anchor members. 

Phill Wilson has lived with HIV for over 30 years and lost his partner, Chris Brownlie, to the virus in 1989. Ten years later, he founded the Black Aids Institute (BAI) to ensure Black communities receive the information they need for prevention and treatment. The BAI has been leading the fight to end HIV in Black communities for over two decades and is the only national HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on Black people. 

In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Wilson to the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Over the last three decades Wilson has amassed countless national and international accolades, including the Ford Foundation’s award in Leadership for a Changing World.

Anna Louise James: One of the first Black female pharmacists

The daughter of a Virginia slave who escaped to Connecticut, Anna Louise James grew up in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where she became the first Black woman in the state to earn a pharmacy license. She ran her own pharmacy and, when her brother-in-law—one of only two Black pharmacists in the state—was drafted in World War I, he asked her to run his pharmacy. 

She renamed it James Pharmacy and was known to everyone as “Miss James.” More than a place to pick up medicine, her pharmacy was a central gathering spot for the community. Miss James ran the pharmacy for 50 years and today, the building still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A Pharmacy for Everyone

Our work to redefine the modern pharmacy begins with recognizing and honoring past and present Black leaders in healthcare. The leaders who’ve not only advanced the field of medicine, but who continue to break down barriers to help ensure equal access for all. Interested in making a difference at Alto? Follow us on LinkedIn to learn more or visit our Careers page for open roles.