Sixty years of medical milestones and some continuing disparities

1950—The 1950 United States Census produced a figure of over 15 million African-Americans living in the United States. This figure represented 10 percent of the total U.S. population.

1950—Pfizer announces the discovery of antibiotic Terramycin, Science, Volume 111, Issue 2874, pp. 85. Drs. Louis and Jane Wright performed the clinical trials on both Terramycin and Aureomycin.


1950—Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950), the founder of the American blood banks, died April 1.

1950—American and British researchers publish papers presenting evidence that smoking causes lung cancer.

1950—Dr. Helen O. Dickens becomes the first African-American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.

1951—Major study documents fluoride’s role in preventing dental cavities.

1952—Major polio epidemic sweeps the United States.

1952—Polio invaded the U.S. long before the summer of 1952. Cycles of epidemics, each seeming to get stronger and more disastrous had begun in 1900. The disease struck mostly children, although adults, including Franklin Roosevelt, caught it too. A major epidemic swept the nation striking down if not killing, 58,000 people. That same year Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. He successfully tested it in 1953 and mass inoculation of American school-children began in 1954. In 1955 there were 28,985 cases of polio; in 1956, 14,647; in 1957, 5,894. By 1959, 90 other countries used Salk’s vaccine. Sabin’s first oral vaccine became available for mass distribution in 1962. The March of Dimes declared polio eradicated in the United States in 1994.

1952—Richard Doll & Bradford Hill publish epidemiological study linking smoking and cancer.

1952—Boston cardiologist Paul M. Zoll develops external cardiac pacemaker.

1953—Surgeons at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia perform the first successful open heart surgery using a heart-lung machine.

1953—Jonas Salk successfully tests a polio vaccine.

1953—James Watson & Francis Crick describe the structure of DNA (Nobel Prize 1963).

1954—Dr. Joseph E. Murray performs the first kidney transplant between identical twins.

1954—Dr. Peter Murray Marshall is installed as the president of the New York County Medical Society, becoming the first African-American to lead an American Medical Association unit.

1957—Dr. William Kolff and Dr. Tetsuzo Akutzu implant the first artificial heart in a dog. The dog lived 90 minutes.

1957—Extensive study commissioned by the American Cancer Society shows that heavy smoking significantly shortens life span.

1957—William Grey Walter invents the brain EEG topography (toposcope).

1959—Dr. Samuel Lee Kountz participated in the first West Coast kidney transplant. Prior to the development of Kountz’s technique of detecting and treating rejection of transplanted kidneys, less than five percent of the transplant patients survived for more than two years.

1960—Invention of Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

1960—First combined oral contraceptive approved by the FDA[21].

1961—First kidney transplant where recipient and donor were not identical twins (Kountz).

1962—First oral polio vaccine.

1964—First vaccine for measles.

1964—Dr. Geraldine Pittman Woods becomes the first Black woman appointed to the National Advisory General Medical Services Council. In this position, she addressed the need to improve science education and research opportunities at minority institutions.

1965—U.S. Congress passes legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid.

1965—Frank Pantridge installs the first portable defibrillator.

1965—First commercial ultrasound.

1965—U.S. Congress passes law requiring label on cigarette packages “Warning: Cigarette Smoking may be Hazardous to your Health.”

1966—Levi Watkins is the first African American to attend Vanderbilt Medical School. He then completed a surgical internship at Johns Hopkins where he became the first African American chief resident in 1978.

1967—First vaccine for mumps.

1967—Christiaan Barnard performs first human heart transplant. Hamilton Naki assists. Barnard would later praise Naki for his role as a teacher and for his skills as a “surgeon.”

1967—Surgeon Rene Favaloro performs first coronary bypass operation using the patient’s vein in Cleveland, Ohio.

1967—Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, pioneer in chemotherapy research and daughter of Dr. Louis T. Wright, is appointed an associate dean and professor of surgery at New York Medical College at the time, the highest post ever attained by a Black woman in medical administration.

1967—The World Health Organization (WHO) launched an intensified plan to eradicate smallpox. The “ancient scourge” threatened 60 percent of the world’s population, killed every fourth victim, scarred or blinded most survivors, and eluded any form of treatment…Through the success of the global eradication campaign, smallpox was finally pushed back to the horn of Africa and then to a single last natural case, which occurred in Somalia in 1977. A fatal laboratory-acquired case occurred in the United Kingdom in 1978. The global eradication of smallpox was certified, based on intense verification activities in countries, by a commission of eminent scientists in December 1979 and subsequently endorsed by the World Health Assembly in 1980.

1969—Alfred Day Hershey, Ph.D., geneticist, becomes the first Black American to share a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He received the award for his research on the replication and genetic structure of viruses.

1970—First vaccine for rubella.

1970—U.S. Congress bans cigarette advertising on television and radio (to take effect in 1971) and requires stronger health warning on cigarettes.

1971—Sir Godfrey Hounsfield invents the first commercial CT scanner.

1972—The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was revealed and finally stopped in 1972. From 1932 to1972, the United States Public Health Service never disclosed the effect of syphilis on more than 300 African-American male residents living in Macon County, Ala. The study was to see what the untreated disease would do to humans, particularly males.

1974—Authorization of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) (P.L. 92-433), providing federal grants to states to provide nutritious food supplements to pregnant women, infants, and children. The March of Dimes promoted creation of WIC and continues to advocate for appropriations, amendments, and re-authorizations.

1975—Morehouse School of Medicine opened its doors in Atlanta.

1975—Dr. Louis Sullivan, who became the first dean and president of Morehouse School of Medicine, is also noted as the first Black male to head the Department of Health & Human Services.

1976—First commercial PET scanner.

1978—Last fatal case of smallpox.

1978—Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall becomes the first Black president of the American Cancer Society.

1980—World Health Organization (WHO) announces Smallpox is eradicated.

1980—Raymond Damadian builds first commercial MRI scanner.

1980—U.S. Congress passes Infant Formula Act, which requires minimum amounts of essential nutrients in commercially prepared baby foods.

1980—Dr. Levi Watkins performed the world’s first implantation of an automatic defibrillator in a patient.

1981—First vaccine for Hepatitis B.

1982—American Medical Association lifts ban on physician adverting after losing court battle with the Federal Trade Commission (1975).

1982—Dr. William DeVries implants the Jarvik-7 artificial heart into patient Barney Clark. Clark lives 112 days.

1983—HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is identified.

1983—First vaccine for hepatitis A.

1986—Meeting where Human Genome Project is first proposed.

1987—Dr. Benjamin Carson, leading a 70-member medical team in Germany, was the first to separate occipital craniopagus twins. Dr. Carson, the director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, focuses on traumatic brain injuries, brain and spinal cord tumors, achondroplasia, neurological and congenital disorders, craniosynostosis, epilepsy and trigeminal neuralgia. He is also interested in maximizing the intellectual potential of every child.

1987—Dr. Mae Carol Jemison, becomes the first African-American woman astronaut chosen to train at NASA in the U.S. Space Program.

1990—Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston becomes the first female and first African-American to direct a public health service bureau: the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Her 1986 study of sickle cell disease led to a nationwide screening program to test newborns for immediate treatment.

1991—Frederick McKinley Jones (1982-1961) was awarded posthumously the National Medal of Technology, the  nation’s highest award for technological achievement. Jones invented and patented more than 60 useful devices involving food preservation and refrigeration. His technology allowed for food transportation and mobile blood-banking. He used both during WWI. He and his partner founded Thermo-King.

1991—On Nov. 7, 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson (1959) announced his retirement from professional basketball due to his testing positive for the HIV Virus. He returned but retire again in 1992.

1991—Dr. Vivian Pinn is the first female and first African-American woman to be appointed director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health for the National Institutes of Health, which oversees research on women and insures that they are represented in broad clinical trials.

1992—First vaccine for Hepatitis A available.

1993—President William J. Clinton chose five African-Americans to serve in his cabinet: Ronald Brown as Secretary of Commerce, Michael Espy as Secretary of Agriculture, Hazel O’Leary as Secretary of Energy, Jesse Brown as Secretary of Veteran Affairs, and Joycelyn Elders as Surgeon General.

1993—Dr. Edward S. Cooper is the first African American elected as National President of the American Heart Association.

1993—Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee is the first African-American woman to be appointed dean of a U.S. medical school (Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine).

1994—Polio declared eradicated in the United States (March of Dimes).

1995—Dr. Helene Doris Gayle is the first female and first African-American Director of the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

1996—Dolly the sheep is the first mammal cloned from an adult cell (dies in 2003).

1996—Bone marrow transplantation reported to cure sickle cell disease

1996—Dr. Ernest E. Just is recognized for his contributions to the biological sciences with a commemorative U.S. Postal Service stamp.

1997—Dr. Donna Christian-Christensen is the first female and first African-American female physician in the U.S. Congress.

1997—Drs. Paula Mahone and Karen Drake are members of a team of 40 specialists involved in the delivery of the McCaughey septuplets at Iowa Methodist Medical Center.

1998—First vaccine for lyme disease.

1998—Dr. David Satcher is sworn in as both the assistant secretary for health and U.S. surgeon general.

2000—Dr. Sharon Henry is the first African-American woman to be elected into membership as a fellow in the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

2000—The nation’s largest group of African-American physicians, the National Medical Association, charge that many managed care plans effectively discriminate against them.

2001—According to Census 2000 figures, 36.4 million people, or 12.9 percent of the total population, reported as being Black or African-American. About 60 percent of all Black or African-Americans lived in 10 states that contained almost half the total U.S. population in 2000.

The Census Bureau report, The Black Population: 2000, shows that 34.7 million people reported as Black alone, while another 1.8 million reported as Black combined with one or more other races. The 2000 Census also shows that 10 percent of the U.S. population is now foreign-born.

2002—Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps is the first African-American woman to serve as president of the American Medical Women’s Association.

2003—Carlo Urbani, of Doctors without Borders alerted the World Health Organization to the threat of the SARS virus, triggering the most effective response to an epidemic in history. Urbani succumbs to the disease himself in less than a month.

2005—Jean-Michel Dubernard performs the first partial face transplant.

2006—First HPV vaccine approved.

2006—Second rotavirus vaccine approved (first was withdrawn).

2007—Charles H. Bynum is recognized by the March of Dimes. Bynum served as director of Interracial Activities for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes) from 1944 to 1971. Bynum traveled widely and tirelessly throughout the country to ensure that African-American children and adults received proper medical care and rehabilitation during the polio epidemics. He also was responsible for March of Dimes publicity and fundraising efforts that featured African-American “poster children” each year from 1947 to 1960. Mr. Bynum died in 1996.

•Scientists discover how to use human skin cells to create embryonic stem cells.

2008—Laurent Lantieri performs the first full face transplant.

2008—The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act—GINA- (P. L. 110-233) amends four statutes including ERISA, the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code and the Medicare program to prohibit group health plans from requesting or requiring genetic information that could be used to raise premiums or cost sharing for individuals with genetic disorders or predispositions.


2009—According to Scientific American in an article published Jan. 9, 2009, in 2008 there were 1,618 documented cases of polio worldwide, 788 (nearly 50 percent) of them in Nigeria. The culprit in Nigeria’s recent outbreak is type 1 polio, the most virulent and fast spreading of the three polio strains. The virus has now spilled into Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Mali and Togo (via infected travelers)—countries that had no reported cases in 2007, except Niger, which had 10.

2010—Regina Benjamin, 53, is officially sworn in as Surgeon General. She became the first Black woman and the first doctor under age 40 elected to the American Medical Association’s board of trustees.

(Compiled by Franki L. Williams for the New Pittsburgh Courier.)


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