February is Black History Month, a time dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the contributions and achievements of Black Americans. In health care, pioneering Black pediatricians have made significant contributions despite enormous disadvantages and systemic barriers, the effects of which they still experience today. Here are three who left a legacy in pediatric health care.
Vivien Thomas (1910 – 1985)
Vivien Thomas contributed to significant advancements in pediatric heart surgery, despite substantial racism and discrimination as a grandson of a slave in the early 1900s. Thomas was born in Lake Providence, Louisiana, in 1910. After graduating from high school, he started working as Alfred Blalock's lab assistant at Vanderbilt University, where he conducted groundbreaking research into the causes of hemorrhagic and traumatic shock, which ultimately gave rise to studies on Crush syndrome. All the while, Thomas was classified and paid as a janitor.
In 1941, Blalock and Thomas relocated to Johns Hopkins, where Blalock become Chief of Surgery. There they were approached by Helen Taussig, a pediatric cardiologist, to discover a surgical treatment for Tetralogy of Fallot, or “blue baby syndrome.” Thomas found a way to successfully treat it with a pulmonary-to-subclavian anastomosis, even training Blalock and guiding him through the first use of the procedure on a human patient. When the procedure was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was called the Blalock-Taussig shunt, and Thomas received no mention and was never credited for his role. The procedure is still used in pediatric surgeries today.
Thomas went on to mentor numerous aspiring surgeons and rose to fame in the medical field. After Blalock passed away, Thomas remained at Johns Hopkins for another 15 years as director of Surgical Research Laboratories, teaching Black lab assistants and working with Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., Hopkins' first black cardiac resident. Thomas received an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1976 and was hired as an instructor of surgery on the medical school's faculty.
Natalia M. Tanner (1922 – 2018)
Natalia M. Tanner was the first Black woman to earn a fellowship in pediatrics from the American Association of Pediatrics. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, she grew up in Chicago and went on to study medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, graduating near the top of her class. After completing her internship in New York and her residency in Chicago, she moved to Detroit and became the first Black board-certified pediatrician in the city. In 1952, when most hospitals were still segregated, she joined the Children's Hospital of Michigan as an attending pediatrician and became the first Black physician on the staff.
Tanner served on the executive board of the Society for Adolescent Medicine and the National Committee on Adolescence for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she chaired the pediatric section of the National Medical Association. One of her achievements was developing a liaison committee to unite these groups who did not work together even though they shared a vision for improving children’s health.
Tanner received numerous awards throughout her career, including the Outstanding Achievement Award in Adolescent Medicine by the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the National Medical Association Distinguished Service Award and the Detroit Urban League's "Distinguished Warrior" Award for her contributions to educational excellence, equality and cultural diversity.
Jocelyn Elders (1933)
Jocelyn Elders, a pediatric endocrinologist, was the first Black American and the second woman to serve as the U.S. surgeon general. Throughout her career, Elders was a strong advocate for comprehensive sex education for young people. During her tenure as surgeon general, Elders proposed creating the Office of Adolescent Health, which is now part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Growing up in a poor, segregated area in Arkansas as one of eight children, Elders never thought she’d be more than a lab technician. But despite her disadvantages, she went on to earn a medical degree and master's degree in biochemistry from the University of Arkansas College of Medicine, ultimately becoming a professor of pediatrics at the university and publishing hundreds of papers.
In 1987, she became the director of public health where she started a project to lower the rate of teen pregnancy by providing birth control, counseling, and sex education at school-based clinics. She also increased the availability of HIV testing and counseling services, breast cancer screenings, round-the-clock care for the elderly, and services for patients who were terminally ill. From 1988 to 1992, she saw a 10-fold increase in the number of early childhood screenings and a 24% rise in immunization rates.
Elders, 83, still teaches at the University of Arkansas and is the spokesperson for “Changing the Face of Medicine,” a campaign that aims to increase the percentage of black doctors in the United States.