As our way of participating in Black History Month 2023, we decided to uplift 3 Black women who have made an impact in the field of health whose voices and impact have been left out of our history books.
A lack of access to quality health care and a legacy of mistrust between the medical community and people of color both stem from the realities of slavery and racism, unconscious white supremacy thinking, and the social inequality that many families face as a result.
These health disparities continue to persist for Black women today, which is why it makes a huge difference to see, know, and celebrate the contributions of people who reflect the diverse population of the United States.
Here at The Women’s Vitality Center, we believe in learning and sharing about collective histories so that the work we do in support of our patients is mindful and inclusive.
Byllye Avery: Improving Black women’s access to healthcare
Byllye Avery is a health care activist who has dedicated her career to confronting disparities in the health care system. She is best known as the founder of the first and only national organization exclusively dedicated to improving Black women’s health, known as the Black Women’s Health Imperative, still going strong today.
In the early 1970’s, Ms. Avery created the first abortion and gynecological care clinic in Gainesville, FL, which also provided contraceptive services, sexuality workshops, and other women’s health-related training and services tailored to Black women.
Ms. Avery has also written and lectured widely on how race, class and gender impact women’s healthcare. She has been a visiting fellow at the Harvard University School of Public Health; served on the Charter Advisory Committee for the Office of Research on Women’s Health of the National Institutes of Health; been a health issues advisor for the Kellogg Foundation’s International Leadership Program; and has served as a consultant on women’s healthcare in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.
We are proud to celebrate the work and contribution that Ms. Byllye Avery has made in the field of women’s health. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, the work to advocate for all women to have access to affordable health care is more important than ever.
Henrietta Lacks: The importance of consent in the pursuit of science
Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia with humble beginnings, and had an unknown life until decades after she passed away from cervical cancer in 1951.
When Ms. Lacks was being treated for her cancer, a sample of her cells was taken without her knowledge or consent. These cells, known as HeLa cells, were found to be unique as they were able to grow and divide indefinitely, a discovery that revolutionized medical research.
Though they were named after Ms. Lacks, many of the researchers working with her cells never knew where the cells originated. She and her family were never asked for consent to collect her cells, were not told about how her cells were being used and were not compensated for the impact they were having. Over the years, HeLa cells have been utilized in numerous medical studies, including the development of the polio vaccine, research into cancer and AIDS, and the study of genetics.
The ability to grow and study these “immortal” cells in the lab has allowed scientists to gain significant insight into the inner workings of cells and the development of diseases such as cancer. However, the use of Ms. Lacks’ cells without her consent raises important ethical questions about informed consent and the ownership of biological material, particularly for marginalized communities.
In recent years, her story has been brought to the forefront through various books, documentaries, and even a play. (If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet, we highly recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.)
Her story is just one of many examples of the unethical treatment of Black women, and serves as a reminder of the importance of respecting the rights and autonomy of all individuals in medical research.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler: The first Black woman MD
In 1864, when slavery was still legal in parts of the US, Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first African American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
Born in 1831 in Delaware, Ms. Crumpler was raised by an aunt who cared for the sick people in her community. She admired her aunt and developed an interest in working in the field of medicine. She pursued nursing initially, and then went on to get her degree as a Medical Doctor, graduating with honors at the New England Female Medical College.
After graduation, she worked as a physician in Massachusetts and then in Richmond, Virginia, where she was dedicated to serving those in need. She primarily worked with patients who were poor and who had limited access to medical care, including many formerly enslaved people, as a physician for the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Despite facing discrimination and limited opportunities due to her race and gender, she persevered and made a significant impact on the lives of countless individuals. Her book, Book of Medical Discourses, in Two Parts published in 1883, is considered a testament to her commitment to the field of medicine.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s legacy serves as an inspiration to us all.