Celebrating Black History Month: A Time for Reflection, Renewal, and Recommitment

By Eve Higginbotham SM, MD, ML

As some of you, I spent this month reflecting on the contributions of so many of our African American historical figures and colleagues, who either have preceded us or who work within our ranks, to advance our collective efforts to achieve health equity.  Within the halls of Penn Medicine, we have celebrated the contributions of Helen Octavia Dickens MD (1909 – 2001), Penn’s first African American Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology faculty member and a trailblazer in advancing health equity.  She is now appropriately memorialized on the first floor of Stemmler Hall in an exhibit that highlights several pivotal moments in her extraordinary career, as she was a stalwart advocate for preventive reproductive health for teens and women. Her legacy is inspiring and reaffirming. 

Another reflection takes me to considering the life and legacy of Dr. William Thomas Valeria Fontaine (1909-1968) who was the first tenured African American faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania.  As a philosophical scholar, he was considered by many as an authority on black culture. Dr. Fontaine explored the “arbitrary use of language…to control human perceptions and interaction.”  Consider how pertinent this work is today as we examine the ways that we characterize human populations, ignoring the genetic diversity represented in African populations and continuing to use the phenotypic appearance of patients as the essential guide to describing the ancestry of an individual.  His work provides the necessary foundation for a recommitment to counter those who persist in attaching a biological premise to “race.” 

It is time for us to consider the importance of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Philadelphia Negro” which documents the “social condition of the Colored People of the Seventh Ward of Philadelphia.”  Written in 1899, this treatise is one of the most important works that underscores the impact of the social determinants to the health of underserved populations, crafted long before the federal acknowledgement of the existence of health disparities in the Heckler Report in 1985.  Dr. Du Bois interviewed nearly 5000 people and published his findings in 1899.  Because he was African American, Dr. DuBois had to complete his work in the field and was not provided office space on campus.  It is ironic that as he identified housing as an important contributor to health, he was not provided the necessary academic housing to complete this important work on campus. 

In many ways, I feel renewed by the lives of these individuals and so many others not mentioned in this essay.  I am inspired by their perseverance, resilience, and fortitude. I remain recommitted to continue to write about and study the significant contributors to health that are sociopolitical and institutional, not the biological presumptions that I learned decades ago in medical school. I am pleased to know that our next generation of students is now deepening their understanding about the importance of social determinants of health and contributions of structural racism.  Clearly our efforts associated with ACT are providing the necessary changes to reshape the dialogue, reframe our diagnostic approaches, and fully lean into how we can better serve and heal the people we see every day.   

We learned about how underserved communities survived the 1918 pandemic in Philadelphia during our annual MLK Health Equity Symposium in January.  On Thursday, February 24, 2022 we will learn from Dr. Katurya Felix about how we can make a difference in addressing institutional barriers in her presentation entitled “Leadership and Structural Racism in Healthcare.”  Join us for a very interesting discussion and reflect on our progress to date and recommit to the work that is ahead of us in the future. 



Addendum: 2/23/22

It is with a saddened heart that we acknowledge the passing of Dr. Paul Farmer on 2/21/22 in Rwanda.  Dr. Farmer, a co-founder of Partners in Health, was not only a committed public health activist but an inspiring individual who made a difference in the lives of underserved populations globally.  I had the pleasure of first meeting Paul when we were both inducted in the same class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences several years ago.  He was very down to earth and humble in his accomplishments even then, and in informal conversations, he expressed an strong enthusiasm for his life’s work.  He will be missed by so many of us who work towards achieving a goal of achieving health equity.