DOI: 10.1093/jhmas/jrad048 ISSN:

“A Much Wider Field in Which to Operate”: Early Black Women Physicians in Public Health

Margaret Vigil-Fowler, Sukumar Desai
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • History


In a profession shaped by Whiteness and masculinity, the few Black women physicians who earned medical degrees prior to the Second World War found some of their rare professional opportunities in public health. Though their choices were often constrained by racism and sexism, they embraced public health work as a means of carrying out their “mission” in marginalized communities and as a way of practicing medicine with a more expansive definition than treating individual patients or illnesses. Black women physicians shaped public health by creating unique programming to meet the needs of the communities they served, including mobile health clinics and community health weeks. The first Black women physicians who worked in public health in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries applied the new tool of public health “vital” statistics to Black lives and questioned the limits of their utility when created by White practitioners with racial biases. In the 1930s, some Black women physicians began earning some of the first master’s degrees in public health, just as the field was beginning to professionalize. Throughout the twentieth century, Black women physicians pioneered community health programming and, though born from exclusionary policies that limited where they could practice, experimented with alternative clinical spaces, even as the hospital and laboratory became the primary sites of medicine for White clinicians. By embracing public health, Black women physicians shaped the field and used it as a tool to address racial health disparities in the communities they served, acting on their belief that Black health could be improved, thereby contesting notions of biological inferiority.

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