Alto’s mission is to improve the quality of life for all who need medicine, building a pharmacy experience that serves people of all backgrounds. As we work toward a more inclusive and accessible healthcare system, we recognize the importance of diversity among physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and other public health figures. In honor of Black History Month, take a moment to learn about five influential Black healthcare leaders past and present — those who paved the way and those who continue to break barriers today. (For additional inspiration, revisit the first post in this series.)
Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders: the first Black U.S. surgeon general
As a Black woman born to farmers in a rural, poverty-stricken area of Arkansas, M. Jocelyn Elders encountered numerous obstacles on her path to becoming the first Black U.S. Surgeon General in 1993. At 16, she met a doctor for the first time, but she didn't consider a profession in healthcare until she connected with Edith Irby Jones, the first Black person to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School, during college.
Throughout her career, Dr. Elders balanced clinical practice and research, increasing the public’s awareness of adolescent health issues. In 1987, Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, appointed Dr. Elders as head of the state’s Department of Health. The Arkansas state legislature mandated sexual education and substance misuse prevention programs in the K-12 curriculum in 1989 in large part because of Dr. Elders’ advocacy. During her tenure as Surgeon General, Dr. Elders continued to champion progressive policies, advocating for better sexual education programs, distribution of condoms in schools, and abortion rights. She remains active in the field of public health as a professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine.
Bernard J. Tyson: former CEO of Kaiser Permanente
As chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, Bernard Tyson transformed the company’s services to account for social determinants of health like food access and affordable housing as well as the importance of mental health and wellness. He was also instrumental in the development of the Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine, which trains physicians to be not only clinicians, but patient advocates and innovators, too. By shining a spotlight on how social determinants of health contribute to disparities in health outcomes, Tyson leaves behind a legacy that reaches far beyond Kaiser’s services.
Nadine Burke Harris: first surgeon general of California
A physician, researcher, advocate, and California’s first surgeon general, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has transformed how our society responds to childhood trauma. While running a health clinic in an underserved San Francisco neighborhood, she observed that preventative health practices and quality treatment didn’t resolve her patients’ risk for poor health outcomes. Drawing upon research from the CDC and Kaiser Permanente on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which linked early adversity to higher rates of chronic illness later in life, Dr. Burke Harris studied her own patients and found that more than 67% had experienced at least one ACE. She has helped increase public awareness of ACEs and toxic stress, advocating for universal screening of children and adolescents for signs of trauma. Her 2014 TED Talk, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across the Lifetime,” has been viewed more than 7.5 million times, and she published The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity in 2018.
Dr. Patrice Harris: first Black female president of the American Medical Association
Despite not knowing any doctors while growing up in West Virginia, Dr. Patrice Harris’ passion for medicine started early. The board-certified psychiatrist initially planned to pursue pediatrics but shifted her focus after discovering an interest in psychiatry during medical school. Her focus on child psychiatry allows her to merge her passion for children with her expertise in mental health. Throughout her career, Dr. Harris has focused on the role of implicit bias within the medical profession and how unconscious biases among healthcare workers influence health disparities.
Dr. Harris’ involvement in the professional healthcare community spans many leadership positions at state and national organizations. She became the first Black woman elected as president of the American Medical Association in 2020. During her tenure, she focused on a variety of health issues, from opioid addiction to COVID-19. She previously chaired the AMA’s Opioid Task Force, providing evidence-based recommendations to clinicians with the goal of ending the opioid epidemic.
Betty Smith Williams: first Black graduate of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing
Betty Smith Williams was the first Black student to earn a nursing degree from Cleveland’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, in 1954, and the first Black individual to teach at a higher education institution in the state of California, but her individual accomplishments are only a part of her legacy. Williams has helped ensure that today’s aspiring Black healthcare professionals have the opportunities and support to break down barriers of their own. She was instrumental in developing the National Black Nurses Association and the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations, Inc. — initiatives that have elevated the voices of Black nurses within the profession. In uniting Black nurses, Williams hoped to create better health outcomes among the Black community. In her own words: "We had no voice, but we understood our culture and our unique needs better than anyone else.”
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.