Updated: Feb 14
Last Tuesday marked a new calendar month, a new Lunar year (The Chinese New Year, Year of the Tiger) as well as the beginning of Black History Month, the month-long celebration of Black history held annually in February. As we move forward this month in all our new beginnings, it is wise – and encouraged – to meditate on the past.
Black History Month (also known as African American History Month) was established in 1926 and is the national observance of the Black contributions, achievements, communities, and culture. It is built upon honoring Black histories and their central roles to American history and culture at large.
Focused on Health
Each year, a theme is assigned to Black History Month. This year, the Black History Month theme is Black Health and Wellness, exploring "the legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, but also other ways of knowing (e.g., birth workers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora.”
While many Black activists and icons are household names, it is medical pioneers for whom, this month, will be our focus.
Black Icons Fight for Health Equality
Dr. Regina Marcia Benjamin, for example, is a modern public health heroine who has led American public health initiatives long before she was the U.S. Surgeon General.
Known as "the nation’s doctor," Benjamin was appointed the 18th U.S. Surgeon General in 2009 by President Barack Obama. Throughout Benjamin’s career, she has worked to improve health and well-being. “My goal was to create a grassroots movement, to change our health care system from one focused on sickness and disease to a system focused on wellness and prevention," Benjamin said.
Another iconic Black medical leader is Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950), the “father of blood banking." Drew pioneered blood preservation techniques, exploring the best practices for blood transfusions and leading the first large-scale blood banks which shipped plasma to England in World War II. He also worked as a surgeon in Washington, D.C., supporting young African Americans in pursuit of similar medical disciplines.
While there are countless Black Health & Wellness professionals to honor, some Black medical icons had no intention of making a mark in the medical world. Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), for example, is somewhat of a public health superhero.
PHOTO: THE LACKS FAMILY, Taken from Wall Street Journal
Samples of Lack's cancerous cervical cells were collected at John Hopkins Hospital and, unlike any other cell samples, her cells doubled every 20-24 hours. These powerful cells, nicknamed "HeLa cells," have been used to test the effects of radiation, poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and most recently, these HeLa cells played a crucial role in the development of COVID-19 vaccine. Although Lacks died at a young age, her impact and legacy live on and continue to save lives over 70 years after her death.
Echos of Prejudice in Healthcare
This year’s theme also offers a harrowing yet significant lens that brings attention to racial discrepancies and discriminations in our modern healthcare system. Minorities receive lower-quality health care than their Caucasian counterparts even when their insurance status, income, age, and severity of conditions are comparable, according to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). This means that in the United States, minorities are more likely to die from diseases like cancer or diabetes because of their race, not only because of the inaccessibility to healthcare. These barriers limit successful public health and wellness not only for minority communities but for all Americans. Just as Black history is American history, Black health and wellness are crucial to American health and wellness.