Let's Not Forget To Thank Black Women For Our Health
Say her name.
April 16, 2017 at 5:29 pm
Jane Cooke Wright. Dr. Alexa Canady. Henrietta Lacks. Have you heard these names during Black History Month? Probably not. These are unsung heroes in a field where black women are few and far between. Very little is widely known about their research and careers that transformed the field of science and medicine for women. Every day we aspire to raise a healthier generation, cure the sick and find answers for living a longer, fuller life, but it is time to acknowledge that those aspirations wouldn’t become a dream realized without a long history of hidden figures and breakthroughs.
Here are a few more things to thank black women in STEM for.
Thank you for empowering us to get the help we need.
About a generation removed from slavery, Philadelphia native Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens used her education to focus on impoverished black women in her practice. Not only did she become the first black OBGYN, she also served as an educator, director of the Mercy Douglass Hospital Department and associate dean of the Office of Minority Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania. Dickens' research on teen pregnancy and sexual health was used to advise schools and health professionals on prevention, which has lowered the STI rates in Philadelphia. Her work has also led to a statewide increase in cervical screenings, and the creation of a teen clinic in 1967 at the University Of Pennsylvania, that provides prenatal care and education. Nowadays, we would call Dr. Helen Octavia Dickens’ efforts to educate and serve black women, sex positive.
Thank you for helping us see beyond a diagnosis, for a better future.
If black girl magic could help us bring up a generation of children who would never see a polio epidemic, would you believe it? You should. The legacy of Henrietta Lacks has lived on after her death in 1951, due to cervical cancer. The cells from that tumor, known as HeLa, are the first immortal cells that could be duplicated, whereas regular human cells die after two days. This superhuman quality allowed scientists to test human cells for medical research, and has since turned 96. HeLa has helped scientists find major breakthroughs to cure diseases like polio, contributed to basic techniques used in cloning (or in vitro fertilization), helped us gain knowledge on the human chromosome and contributed to anti-cancer treatments with the discovery of an enzyme called "telomerase."
While scientists still can’t figure out how Henrietta’s cells could survive and multiply, Henrietta Lacks received very little recognition for cells that were harvested and reproduced without her permission—until now. Media organizations, like HBO, launched a pop-up art exhibit called the HeLa Project, along with a movie based on Rebecca Skloot's best-selling nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, dedicated to the life and significant scientific contributions of an unsung hero.
Thank you for opening our eyes…literally!
We can thank black women for a lot of things like proper hair care and the inspiration to dream big in the face of adversity, but have you thought about thanking them for your eyesight? Well, add that to the list. Dr. Patricia Bath was not only the first woman to complete a residency in Ophthalmology, but her research on how blindness disproportionately affects African Americans' predisposition to glaucoma, set the stage for increased eye care for her community. Dr. Bath was the architect of programs to train future Ophthalmologists on the premise that eyesight is a basic human right. And most importantly, her research led to the Laserphaco Probe used to remove cataracts and restore eyesight.
Thank you for your achievements. They prove we are capable beyond our wildest dreams.
While many mention Ben Carson, little is mentioned about Alexa Canady, the first black woman neurosurgeon. Canady was not only the first African American woman to become a neurosurgeon, but the first to complete a residency in neuroscience, and the first to be certified by the American Board of Neurological Study. If being a pioneer wasn’t enough, her focus on the patient as a pediatric neurosurgeon made her practice unique in the neuroscience community.
Canady’s journey wasn’t an easy one, nor was she considered a prodigy in the field where people were eager to further her studies. Like many black women, she experienced a “confidence crisis” early in her academic career, but pursued medicine anyway. Her dedication to medicine and multiple recognitions for her approach teaches us that we are more than capable, and even gifted, if we give ourselves the chance.
Hidden or visible, black women have contributed to shaping a future where we never have to question the quality of health we deserve, and where young black women (and men) who want to pursue STEM, can proudly stand on the shoulders of giants. When we celebrate being on the brink of a cure for diseases like cancer, or even unapologetically owning our sexual health, we owe it to ourselves to say the names of the women who made it possible.
This article is sponsored by the new film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, premiering April 22, 2017, on HBO.