Celebrating Black History Month: Present and Past Pioneers

By Eve Higginbotham, SM, MD, ML

Traditionally, Black History Month is a time when we celebrate lists of individuals who have overcome challenges and meaningfully contributed to the advancement of our society. There are many iconic individuals whose lives significantly enriched the societal aspirations for a better world.  As we all strive to achieve similar goals, there are barriers that we continuously face that may seem unresolvable.  Thus, taking time to consider the accomplishments of others, may infuse the necessary energy to endure the challenges we face in our professional and personal journey. 

This year’s celebration takes on added importance given the current state of our national culture and the geopolitical uncertainties which are actively impacting us globally.  As we review the narratives of heroes now and the past, we may find solace as we take in the breadth of their accomplishments and inspiration from all the barriers they overcame.  While it is not possible to interview all of those listed, at the very least there may be a personal connection when viewing the selected portraits shared in this article.    

Portrait of Oprah Winfrey, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the unveiling of Oprah Winfrey’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.  The journey of Oprah is well documented, as she has amassed billions despite her early life overshadowed by poverty and abuse.    

 Needless to say, I was excited to have been asked to join Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey to attend.   Not only was it an opportunity to participate in a historical event, it was also a chance to accompany the first woman of color appointed to chair the Board of the Smithsonian Institute.  This event reminded me of the gift that we have in our daily lives to witness and be part of the creation of modern day history, as Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey, formerly the CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has achieved so many milestones during her illustrious career and she continues contribute on a daily basis.  Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey has impacted lives in various roles including governance positions in corporate and private industry.   She is among many other individuals deserving of recognition during this celebratory month, far more than I can list.  Moreover, there are a few that will be highlighted, many of whom are not well known but all contributed significant value to our nation. 

Well connected to the University of Pennsylvania legacy is Dr. W.E. DuBois.  W.E. DuBois was among the first to clearly document the relationship of social determinants and the health and well- being of the African American community residing within a few miles of the University of Pennsylvania.  He was also the first African American to receive a doctorate from the Harvard University in 1895.  Notably, when he completed his work entitled the Philadelphia Negro in 1899, the University would not allow him to complete his work on campus which required him to work remotely. 

It is remarkable to recall other brave souls who made advances despite significant odds,  such as James McCune Smith, who was the first African American to practice medicine in the United States.  Dr. Smith earned his medical degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1837.  Another visionary was Dr. Charles Drew, who revolutionized blood transfusion storage, organizing the first large-scale blood bank during World War II.  Ironically and tragically, Dr. Drew succumbed to injuries from an MVA in 1950; he may have survived if the therapeutic advantage of blood transfusion, he helped to advance, had been provided to him in a timely fashion prior to his passing.  Unfortunately, as he was injured in the Deep South, segregation limited access to this option.  Drs. Smith and Drew were highlighted in an article by colleagues at Chester Hospital in 2022, along with Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first open heart surgery, and also, Otis Boykin, Miles Vandarhurst Lynk, and Kizzmekia S. Corbett.   

Returning to my visit to the National Portrait Gallery, I will note a few additional luminaries who are honored with portraits in this majestic museum complex, the world’s largest in the world.   In addition to the newly hung portrait of Oprah Winfrey, there are portraits of former President Barak Obama, his wife, Michelle Obama, and Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb (January 17, 1924-January 1, 2017).  We cannot forget the accomplishments of the Obama presidency, particularly the passage of the Affordable Care Act which has reduced the number of uninsured Americans.  Michelle Obama continues to lead as an extraordinary role model for all women and from a health perspective, she remains committed to helping children have the opportunity for healthy lives.

Michelle Obama, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC
Barak Obama, National Portrait
Gallery, Washington DC






Dr. Cobb was an American biologist, cancer researcher, professor, and dean.  Her research focus was melanoma, as she deepened our understanding of the formation of melanin granule formation in these lesions. 

In 1949, she was appointed as an investigator at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, a remarkable appointment given the rare chance that a woman of color would hold such a position.  Dr. Cobb served as a professor of Zoology and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Connecticut College from 1969 until July 1976, serving as the first African American Dean in the history of the College.  She served as a member of the National Science Board and advisor to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, chairing a report entitled the Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.  This pivotal report provided recommendations regarding strategies to increase the recruit greater numbers of women from underrepresented populations into STEM.  It is possible that this report informed the work that followed that provided many of us to follow in her footsteps in science. 

Dr. Fullerton served as Dean of Douglass College at Rutgers, another notable position in her career.  In 1981, she was appointed President of Fullerton University, a position which affirmed her place in history as the first woman color to lead a major university in the United States.   During her tenure as President at Fullerton, the university’s first on-campus housing was built, enrollment increased and the schools of communication, computer science and engineering were established.  This journey indeed, maps out a remarkable journey for this extraordinary scientist, scholar, and academic administrator. 

At a time in our nation when there are intentional attempts to remove the history of segments of the population, highlighting the work and lives of so many inspirational individuals like Dr. Cobb takes on even greater importance.  As we acknowledge the extraordinary accomplishments of these individuals highlighted in this article, we need to also recognize that they too had times of struggle and recognize that it takes fortitude and resilience to continue in our own professional journeys.  As stated by filmmaker, Ava DuVernay "When we’re talking about diversity, it’s not a box to check. It is a reality that should be deeply felt and held and valued by all of us."  Recognizing the accomplishments of these pioneers affirms their value and reminds us of our own value that our own personal journeys bring to society every day.