A History of Impact, Yesterday and Today

As Black History Month (February) comes to a close, and Women’s History Month (March) begins, we thought we’d take a walk through history and share some key Black, female leaders in the field of medicine and cancer research. 

First Black, female physician in the U.S. 

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Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831 — 1895) worked as a nurse for eight years in Charlestown, Massachusetts.  Because this was in the 1850s, she was able to work without any formal training (keep in mind the first nursing school opened in 1873).  She was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in 1860.  She graduated a few short years later in 1864 becoming the first African American to graduate from the New England Female Medical College as well as the first Black woman to earn a medical degree.  When the Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, VA and joined other black physicians to care for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care. She worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau, as well as missionary and community groups, even though black physicians experienced intense racism working in the postwar South.

First Black licensed nurse

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Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) knew at a young age that she wanted to be a nurse.  She had early jobs at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, working as a janitor, cook, and washer women, then got the opportunity to work as a nurse’s aide. She applied and was admitted to the facility’s nursing school (one of the first in America) in 1878.  It is said that 42 applicants were admitted to the program and only four completed the 16-month program.  Mary was one of the four and would become known as the first Black licensed nurse.  She followed a career in private nursing due to the discrimination she faced as a public health nurse. She retired from nursing after dedicated 40 years, however, she didn’t stop advocating for equality. Mary was a Women’s Rights activist.  After the 19th Amendment was ratified, she became one of the first women to register to vote in Boston! 

Founder of the first hospital for African Americans in Atlanta

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Dr. Georgia Rooks Dwelle (1884 – 1977) attended Spelman College and in 1900 she became the school’s first graduate to go on to medical school. After completing her degree, she returned to her home state of Georgia and received the highest score on the Georgia State Medical Board examination that year. She became one of only three African American women physicians in Georgia at that time. When she settled in Atlanta, she witnessed first-hand the dire poverty and terrible conditions in which many of the city’s poorest Black residents lived and the lack of medical care they received. She was determined to set up a practice where conditions would be sanitary and proper services would be offered. Her initiative started with just a few rented rooms and grew into Atlanta’s first general hospital for African Americans, the Dwelle Infirmary.  She continued expanding services for the hospital and by 1935 had a well-baby clinic, a clinic for venereal disease, and a ‘Mother’s Club’ for African American women.  

First woman president of the New York Cancer Society

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Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (1919 – 2013) was the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard Medical School, Louis Tompkins Wright.  She graduated from New York Medical College in 1945 and was hired as a physician with the New York City Public Schools. She decided to work with her father, who was serving as the director of the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital.  Chemotherapy was experimental at that time, and as a team they began testing anti-cancer chemicals and helping patients achieve some remission.  Following her father’s death in 1952, Dr. Jane Wright was appointed head of the Cancer Research Foundation, at the age of 33. She went on to become the director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center and was appointed to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1971, Dr. Wright became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. At a time when African American women physicians numbered only a few hundred in the entire United States, Dr. Wright was the highest ranked African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution.

Making Impact Today

These trailblazers of the past helped pave the way for the trailblazers of today, such as:

At the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development

Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett is at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development. A viral immunologist at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, she is one of the leading scientists behind the government’s search for a vaccine. Corbett is part of a team at NIH that worked with Moderna, the pharmaceutical company that developed one of the two mRNA vaccines that has shown to be more than 90% effective. Today, together with her research Corbett is taking on another challenge: tempering vaccine hesitancy by talking about COVID-19 science in communities of colour.

Developing cancer therapies with lasers and nanoparticles

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Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green, age 42, is one of the first African American women in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in physics, holds the distinction of being only the second African American woman and the fourth African American to receive a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Today, Dr. Green specializes in developing targeted cancer therapies using lasers and nanoparticles. Her expertise lies at the intersection of nanotechnology, immunotherapy, and precision medicine with a focus on developing a new cancer therapy platform that uses laser-activated nanoparticles to completely eliminate tumors after a single treatment. Beyond her academic work, she founded the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation – named in memory of her late aunt who raised her. Dr. Green has intertwined her life’s work and professional focus into the mission of the organization: to change the way cancer is treated and reduce the suffering of cancer patients by providing a treatment that is accessible, affordable, and most importantly, effective. 

Applying computational modeling to cancer therapies

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Stacey D. Finley is a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, where she leads the Computational Systems Biology Laboratory. She applies computational modeling to study  biologic processes that underlie cancer, such as angiogenesis, metabolism, and immunotherapy. The biochemical networks that regulate these processes involve numerous cell types, molecular species, and signaling pathways, and the dynamics occur on multiple timescales. Therefore, her systems biology approach, including experiment-based computational modeling, is required to understand these complex processes and their interconnectedness in cancer, her research website explains. Models can simulate biological processes, test interventions and  identify which tumors will respond favorably to a particular therapy, aiding in the development and optimization of effective therapeutics.

These are only just a few of the incredible Black, female medical pioneers we decided to highlight.  Let’s take a moment to celebrate these individuals and their impact.  Their legacies will carry on serving all of us for many years to come.  

Black History Month and the Disparities Still To Overcome

As we discussed in an earlier post, advancements in the understanding of cervical cancer and the invention of the HPV vaccine are inextricably intertwined with Black History Month (February). Why? Because the “HeLa cells” used in groundbreaking scientific research were from the cells of Henrietta Lacks, a young Black woman who lost her life to cervical cancer in 1951 and whose cell lines have transformed modern medicine.

While HeLa cells were critical to the science that led to the HPV vaccines that have the power to prevent cervical cancer, today Black women in the U.S. bear a disproportionate burden of cervical cancer. Although  cervical cancer occurs most often in Hispanic women, Black women have lower 5-year survival rates and die more often than any other race.  In fact, they have nearly twice the cervical cancer mortality rate compared to white women. 

Why?

Interestingly, while most women with cervical cancer were probably exposed to cancer-causing HPV types years before, on average, Black women do not receive a diagnosis until 51 years of age. That compares to white women who have a median age of cervical cancer diagnosis at 48. Those three crucial years could make the difference between a treatable versus terminal cancer.

Why?

Researchers have reported that due to social and economic disparities, many Black women do not have access to regular screenings. Screening programs often fail to reach women living in an inner city or rural areas because of lack of transportation, education, health insurance, primary care providers who can perform cervical cancer screenings, or availability of nearby specialists for follow-on care.

How can we make a meaningful difference? 

The underlying causes of health disparities are complex and are multi-layers with lifestyle factors (obesity, cigarette smoking, etc.), socioeconomic factors (access to health insurance, access to healthcare providers), representation in research (clinical trials), and much much more. Yet there are still meaningful ways to make a difference.

Help increase screening rates.

Increasing screening rates could greatly reduce deaths from cervical cancer among Black women, Hispanic women and other underrepresented communities. This requires the delivery of interventions directly to underserved women such as screenings based at accessible locations closer to their places of residence – such as via mobile vans and/or screening locations at local community centers instead of medical clinics. This can substantially lower cervical cancer mortality rates through early detection.

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) has programs – and importantly, partnerships – in place across states, territories and tribal lands.

For example, in South Carolina, NBCCEDP has brought screening to underserved communities in collaboration with nonprofits and faith-based groups including The Best Chance Network and Catawba Indian Nation. In Nevada, programs with Women’s Health Connection increased screening numbers by 30%. Connect with your state’s screening programs. Share info about local screening programs and events. 

Encourage HPV vaccination

Encourage clinical trial participation

A lack of racial and ethnic diversity in both cancer research and the healthcare workforce is one of the major factors contributing to cancer health disparities, according to the American Association of Cancer Research. Clinical trials lead to the development of new interventions and new drugs. They are used to make better clinical decisions, but there is often a significant underrepresentation in clinical trials by non-White races and ethnicities. With a focus on targeted therapies and precision medicine, representation in clinical trials is increasingly important so that research includes and reflects all groups. Where to start? Share links to www.clinicaltrials.gov – where clinical trials are listed and searchable by location, disease, medicine, etc. 

During this year’s Black History Month, let’s work together to change the history of cervical cancer.