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African American Journeys of Innovation and Perseverance

By Andrea Stewart-Crutch, Regional Manager, Business Development, Northeast


As we continue our celebration of Black History Month, we turn our attention to innovation. African American inventors in our more recent history have been driven by inner curiosity, ingenuity and an interest in improving human conditions and experiences. Their motivations were in stark contrast to African American inventors of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose inventions were most often created out of desperation and necessity. Tools, techniques and processes were typically created and streamlined to provide some relief, alleviate a burden or improve tortuous slave labor conditions. African American innovators have been invaluable in medicine.

Advancements in Medicine

Highlighted below are five revolutionary inventions and accomplishments of innovative and resourceful African Americans who have advanced the medical field throughout U.S. history.

  1. Daniel Hale Williams pioneered open heart surgery and in 1891 was credited for founding the nation’s first non-segregated hospital and nursing school in Chicago, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses.
  2. Percy Lavon Julian is credited for the synthetization and utilization of cortisone in 1948. He also engineered the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, allowing for large-scale production of progesterone and testosterone in 1939.
  3. Charles Richard Drew, the father of the modern blood bank, invented a blood plasma preservation process in 1939 to store and ship life-saving blood plasma during World War II. His work became the foundation of the American Red Cross Blood Bank.
  4. Otis Boykin invented and received a patent for his wire precision resistor, a control unit used in the artificial cardiac pacemaker in 1959.
  5. Patricia Bath was the first African American woman to complete an ophthalmology residency in 1973. In 1988, she invented a device called the Laserphaco Probe, further refining laser cataract surgery.

Aside from their race, each of these inventors shares common denominators, in that their inventions have directly or indirectly impacted some aspect of our daily lives, and they received credit for their work. African American inventors in earlier generations, including those who were enslaved, did not get the opportunity to claim credit for or benefit from their intellectual property. It was often appropriated.

Exception to the Rule

The patent law of 1793 was written with “colorblind language,”  meaning race, color, ethnicity and country of origin were never mentioned. Yet, the drafters categorized African Americans as “property,” not humans, and certainly not citizens worthy of any constitutional rights. While the law never explicitly excluded African Americans from patent eligibility, the racism of the time excluded them from benefiting from the patent process.

Being denied patents to protect their work systematically robbed African Americans of their due credit, respect, recognition and the opportunity to create generational wealth. This denied access kept even the most inventive minds of the day from succeeding and eliminated the possibility to reset the trajectory of their families’ prosperity for generations.

Many of these African American inventors created what the current research and development industry classifies as “disruptive technology.” These devices and concepts revolutionized the way people lived and worked. Their original concepts contributed to the evolution of products that continue to impact our current daily lives.

Thomas Jennings is the first African American man on record granted a patent in 1821. Since that time, African Americans submit patent applications at roughly the same rate, yet their approval ratio throughout history has remained significantly lower than their white counterparts.

My Father’s Story

My father was a chemist who developed pigment additives for graphics and print media in the 1980s. While he found some success working for large corporations, he also suffered through systematic racial discrimination. This included having racial slurs hurled at him on the job and having several team members walk out on his first day in a leadership role. He was told directly that they would rather quit than work for a Black man.

When he reached his limit, he chose to start his own print/graphics company. Despite working tirelessly on his formulations, he was never able to get his pigment additive(s) patented. He then fell ill and died quite young. When my mother sold his company and the formulas that were his intellectual property, it was discovered that some were missing. We later learned that his former business partner, a white man, applied for a very similar additive patent shortly after my father’s death. That man’s patent was granted.

Sharing My Gratitude

U.S. history and African American History are one and the same. Black History Month is a necessary time to educate and remind ourselves collectively about the real experiences, roles and impact of the African American community on this country’s history.

Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect on our past and celebrate our often improbable perseverance, progress, strength and ingenuity. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a time to show gratitude to those who suffered before us. Their struggle afforded us a smoother path and allows us to provide an even smoother path for those who follow. We acknowledge and honor these African American inventors’ contributions and their significant cultural, social and economic impact.

I am thankful that TeamHealth consistently seeks out the input and perspective of its diverse team members. I am also proud to work for a company committed to the journey of creating and maintaining an authentic culture of diversity, inclusion and equity. Subscribe to our blog and follow our social media accounts to learn more and celebrate Black History Month with us.