Black Women in Healthcare: A History

by | Feb 27, 2023 | Insights



The healthcare system presents many obstacles for women, especially for women of color. This Black History Month, we examine some pivotal moments in history to see how far we’ve come and how Black women themselves are transforming healthcare for the better.

When it comes to navigating their own healthcare, Black women are often confronted with implicit biases and lack of access, which comes at a high cost (ABA). For instance, “Black women are more likely to experience preventable maternal death compared with white women.” (Source)

Though this by no means covers the extensive history or experience of Black women in our healthcare system or the incredible achievements of Black women in healthcare, it serves as a reminder of all that has been done, and all there is still left to do.

Table of Contents

Mid-1800s: Dr. Sims

1923: Sterilization Laws

October 4, 1951: Henrietta Lacks

2007: Harriet Washington’s Book

2021: Dr Kizzmekia Corbett at the forefront of Covid-19 vaccine

Why Multicultural Healthcare Marketing Matters


Mid-1800s: Dr. Sims

Known as the “father of modern gynecology” for his surgical techniques to get women through childbirth, Dr. Sims developed his procedures by performing surgeries on enslaved Black women without anesthesia.

He conducted experiments on enslaved black women in a makeshift facility behind his house in Alabama, and went on to found the Women’s Hospital and practice medicine on women in Europe.

In her 2007 interview about her groundbreaking book, Harriet Washington revealed :

Harriet Washington quote saying "All of the early important reproductive health advances were devised by perfecting experiments on black women. Why? Because white women could say no... "

“…He bought, or otherwise acquired, a group of black women who he housed in a laboratory, and over the period of five years and approximately 40 surgeries on one slave alone, he sought to cure a devastating complication of childbirth called vesicovaginal fistula. This cure entailed repeatedly doing incisions on their genitalia, very painful and, you know, very emotionally difficult, as you can imagine. And in the end, he claims to have cured one of them.”



1923: Sterilization in Michigan

In 1913, a sterilization law was passed in Michigan for the “mentally unfit or insane.” It was quickly ruled unconstitutional, but 10 years later it was amended, and subsequently held up.

“Under the 1923 reimplementation of the 1913 law, x-rays were added to vasectomy and salpingectomy as specifically stated means of sterilization” (UVM source)

Not surprisingly, this Michigan sterilization policy disproportionately affected black women—and not by accident. One of the largest proponents of the law was Harvey Kellogg, an avid supporter of eugenics and founder of the Race Betterment Foundation.

African Americans were four times more likely to be sterilized; and of the 3786 cases, 74% of sterilizations were carried out on females (Roberts). Black women, once again, lie at the intersection—more affected than anyone else.

October 4, 1951: Henrietta Lacks

image of Henrietta Lacks

On October 4, 1951, Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer. Her caretaker then gave a researcher her cells without consent. And, if you’ve heard of HeLa cells, you know how revolutionary they’ve been. They seemed to never stop multiplying, and they never did. Her cells turned out to have an extraordinary capacity to survive and reproduce; they were, in essence, immortal.

Researchers used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine as well as in cancer and AIDS research. Still vital to research today, labs even used these immortal cells when developing of the Covid-19 vaccine.

In 2010, Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brought the injustice of Henrietta Lacks into the public eye.

Henrietta Lacks’ story exemplifies racial inequalities deeply embedded into our healthcare system. It’s one example of millions, one that happened to have an extraordinary impact. And the impact of this one Black woman went unacknowledged. No one even told her family.

Henrietta Lacks’s granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye said,

“I want scientists to acknowledge that HeLa cells came from an African American woman who was flesh and blood, who had a family and who had a story.”

She loved to cook spaghetti and dance with her five beloved children. Her grandson Alfred Lacks Carter says about HeLa cells,

“They were taken in a bad way but they are doing good for the world,” he says. And they do so for people of all ethnicities. (source)

Rebecca Skloot’s book pushed scientific communities to put more policies and provisions in place that emphasize consent. Though this did little to remove implicit bias, it was a start.

In looking back at these historical moments, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Black women themselves have still found a way to penetrate the system and transform healthcare

In this case, a Black woman looked into the truth on her own, and revealed it to us.

2007: Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid 

cover of Harriet Washington's book, red with a black medical cross at the center, with title: Medical Apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial times to the present

Medical ethicist, esteemed researcher, and American writer Harriet Washington published her book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

In it, she detailed historical accounts of medical experiments on Black Americans. She mentions ‘scientific racism,’ a pseudoscientific concept thoroughly believed at the time. She details Dr. Marion Sims’ life and his experiments on slave women. Of him, she says:

“… although often you speak of surgeons and doctors who do nonconsensual experimentation, and we think of these Frankensteinian characters, but the reality is these have tended to be overachieving…stellar physicians. They were well revered…within their profession in their time, and people only knew of their work through their own bowdlerized versions of it. They wrote up these accounts in medical journals, but they never characterized them as abusive experimentation, because it was accepted for them that you operated on slaves who couldn’t say no.”


Washington also shed light on the Tuskegee experiment, where researchers told 400 men diagnosed with syphilis that they were in a treatment program. Rather than treat the patients, researchers gave them regular spinal taps to “ensure a supply of sera for the development of a syphilis test.”

Soon after the study started, scientists discovered penicillin as a cure and did not treat the men or even tell them. It continued for 40 years, from 1932 to 1972. Washington’s research uncovered 2 men who raised alarms. She says:

“One was Dr. Irwin Schatz of Detroit, who wrote a letter to the Public Health Service after they published an article in a premier medical journal, and he said, “I’m shocked and astonished that you are permitting these men to continue dying of a treatable disease.” And there is a note attached to his letter by a physician who writes, “I’m not going to answer this.” And, indeed, they didn’t.”

Washington also speaks of Holmesburg Prison and the history of experiments on inmates in prisons, and far more.

In 2008, the American Medical Association apologized to African American physicians for passively accepting racial inequalities for more than a century. Though this isn’t much of an actionable change, it’s worth noting for the shifting tide in public consciousness that likely drove it.

2021: Dr Kizzmekia Corbett at the forefront of Covid-19 vaccine

Did you know a Black woman was at the forefront of the Covid-19 vaccine?

Thirty-four-year-old Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s team “took a lot of the knowledge they have gained in the last six years and applied it to a vaccine platform in collaboration with Moderna.” (CBS)

Only 10 months later, the vaccine became available.

She told CBS, “To be honest, I didn’t realize the level of impact that my visibility might have … I do my work because I love my work.”

Corbett is a shining example of a successful Black woman in medicine. Though she made it, there aren’t enough opportunities for Black women and girls to follow in her footsteps.

Black students earned 7% of STEM bachelor’s degrees as of 2018, the most recent year available, below their share of all bachelor’s degrees (10%) or their share of the adult population (12%).

Pew Research 2021

A Meyerhoff Scholar, Corbett attended the University of Maryland. President of the University Dr. Freeman Hrabowski agrees that, “It’s important for people to see people looking like them, like themselves, who can be involved.”

Why Multicultural Healthcare Marketing Matters

As healthcare brands and marketers, what can be done? Culturally competent messaging and hiring people who understand goes a long way.

For quite some time, marketing has been focused on White culture in the U.S. Since White culture was dominant, the remaining, multicultural 40% of the population was largely ignored. Recently, we’ve made some progress. Brands like Tia, for instance, are taking a culturally competent approach built by and for women of color.

According to survey results released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 54% of respondents don’t feel culturally represented in online marketing and advertising. Of these consumers, 71% hold brands to the standard of promoting and advocating for DEI in their online tactics.


Scrolling and seeing an ad that gives customers a voice, one that makes you feel heard and understood, is something Black women should experience too. When a customer feels like a product or service was designed with them in mind, that goes a long way—especially in healthcare.

When we hire Black women, listen to their perspective, and remain authentic, brands can provide that feeling for consumers.

A multicultural campaign isn’t about achieving a certain aesthetic, it’s about achieving authenticity. If you commit to diversity, on and off camera, your campaign feels honest. And honest campaigns have impact.

See: MINORITY MENTAL HEALTH: GET TO KNOW THE FACTS to learn more about multicultural healthcare marketing.

Resources about Black Women in Healthcare

A brief look back like this leaves out a lot. Here are some links to resources if you’d like to dive a little deeper on topics of Black women in healthcare and intersectionality.


The Article That Could Help Save Black Women’s Lives

Combating the mistreatment of Black women in healthcare

Trying To Avoid Racist Health Care, Black Women Seek Out Black Obstetricians


The Interaction Between Chronic Stress and Pregnancy: Preterm Birth from A Biobehavioral Perspective

How structural racism can kill cancer patients

Racial Discrimination and Adverse Birth Outcomes: An Integrative Review

Black infants die before one year of life at more than twice the rate of white infants.


Invisible Visits: Black Middle-Class Women in the American Healthcare System

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present



The 3rd Eye

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