In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Health and Medicine

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Health Care of Enslaved People
  • Traditional Healers
  • Black Hospitals
  • Medical Education
  • Medical Professionals
  • Discrimination in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Disease
  • Area and Case Studies
  • Biographies and Autobiographies

African American Studies Health and Medicine
Thomas J. Ward
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0085


The medical and health care history of African Americans is a small but growing field of historical study. Much of the research done on the subject in the early 20th century was conducted by black medical professionals themselves. John Kenney, Booker T. Washington’s personal physician, authored one of the very first studies of black medical professionals, The Negro in Medicine, in 1912, while other a number of other black physicians, including Midian O. Bousfield and Paul Cornely, authored numerous books and articles on the black medical experience in the early and mid-20th century. The field was, in many ways, founded by the legendary Howard University Medical School Professor Dr. W. Montague Cobb, who, while not a historian by training, was among the first to chronicle the contributions of black physicians, hospitals, and medical schools in his articles for the Journal of the National Medical Association (the black counterpart to the Journal of the American Medical Association) and for the NAACP’s The Crisis. Perhaps the single most important activist in the struggle for integration in the medical profession, Cobb’s writings provide invaluable insights into the fight for the desegregation of hospitals, professional associations, and medical schools. Finally, Cobb was central in collecting and assembling the papers of prominent black physicians, and, due to his efforts, Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center houses the most significant manuscript collections regarding African-American health care and medicine. In addition to Howard University, important manuscript collections regarding black health care are housed at the Amistad Center at Tulane University, at Meharry Medical College Archives, and at Fisk University’s Special Collections. Not surprisingly, the focus of most historians of black healthcare has been on issues of slavery, including Todd L. Savitt’s classic work Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia (1981) and Deidre Cooper Owens’ Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, as well as studies that focused on racial discrimination in the American health care system, such as Edward H. Beardsley’s, A History of Neglect (1987) and Thomas J. Ward’s Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South (2003). The Tuskegee syphilis study has been one of the few African-American healthcare topics that has received wide attention, most famously in James Jones’s Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (1984, 1993), and increasingly there has been more attention paid to issues regarding the impact that government policies have played in black health, including David Barton Smith’s Health Care Divided: Race and Healing a Nation (1999) and David McBride’s Caring for Equality: A History of African American Health and Health Care (2018).

General Studies

The first major broad-based academic study of African American health and medicine was Morais 1967, which focuses primarily on the roles played by black professionals and institutions such as hospitals and medical associations. Byrd and Clayton 2000, McBride 2018, Bullough and Bullough 1982, and Smith 1999 all are overviews that chronicle broad eras of African American health and medicine, while Washington 2008 covers the entirety of African-American history, but focuses on the topic of medical experimentation. Essay collections by Jones and Rice 1987 and Savitt 2007 both examine broad periods and themes in African American medical history. Long 2016 examines the impact that the transition from slavery to freedom had on black health, while Smith 1995 focuses on the impact that black women have had on African-American health care.

  • Bullough, Vern, and Bonnie Bullough. Health Care for the Other Americans. 2d ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1982.

    An examination of the connections between poverty, race, and health care in the United States, comparing the US health care delivery system to that of other nations. While dated in areas because of the changes in the US health care system since the 1980s, the main findings on the importance of race and poverty as related to health remain extremely relevant.

  • Byrd, W. Michael, and Linda A. Clayton. An American Health Dilemma: Vol. 1, A Medical History of African Americans and the Problems of Race; Beginnings to 1900. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    An ambitious and broad study of the intersections of race and health care that, while focusing on the African-American experience, actually goes all the way back to the ancient world to examine the connections between race, medicine, and health care. A good introduction to many issues and people developed in greater detail in other works.

  • Jones, Woodrow, Jr., and Mitchell F. Rice, eds. Health Care Issues in Black America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

    A collection of essays that examine primarily policies that affected black health, and how such policies have caused discrepancies between black and white health.

  • Long, Gretchen. Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

    Long focuses on how health care helped shaped African American identity, equating the desire for health care with black self-help. She explores ways that health care was a political act used by African Americans to assert their independence, as well as the recurring tension between what powerful whites viewed as the most pressing needs for black health care and what African Americans viewed as best for themselves.

  • McBride, David. Caring for Equality: A History of African American Health and Health Care. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

    A brief overview of major issues in African American healthcare from the colonial era to the present, focusing primarily on black caregivers, from Traditional Healers to doctors and nurses, but also examines how institutions—hospitals, professional associations, medical schools, and the federal government—all impacted black health.

  • Morais, Herbert M. The History of the Afro-American in Medicine. Cornwell Heights, PA: The Publishers Agency, 1967.

    A classic work that chronicles the experiences of African American medical professionals and black medical institutions—including hospitals, medical schools, and medical associations—from the mid-19th century though the mid-20th century.

  • Savitt, Todd L. Race and Medicine in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century America. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2007.

    A collection of essays by Todd Savitt, one of the pioneers in the study of African-American health care. The collection is organized topically, with sections on “Diseases and Disorders of African-Americans,” “Health and Health Care During Slavery and Reconstruction,” “The Black Medical Profession,” and “African-American Medical Schools.” A vital resource for those interested in both health care during slavery and the development of the black medical profession.

  • Smith, David Barton. Health Care Divided: Race and Healing a Nation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.16313

    Smith examines the impact that racial segregation and discrimination had upon the American health care system throughout the 20th century, focusing especially on how government policies—most significantly the Hill-Burton Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and federal court decisions— helped erode racial disparities in health care.

  • Smith, Susan L. Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890–1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

    Smith chronicles how black women were at the forefront of the struggle to improve African American health conditions in the segregated South, from clubwomen who raised money for medical facilities and awareness of health conditions to rural midwives who were on the front lines of the health care delivery system. An important study regarding African American health care in the South, and the often-overlooked role of women in delivering it.

  • Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from the Colonial Era to the Present. New York: Anchor, 2008.

    A broad overview of the long history of medical experimentation on, and medical neglect and abuse of, African Americans from the colonial era through the late-20th century. Washington provides numerous vignettes of the mistreatment of black Americans at the hands of doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and the US government.

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