Progress for African-American pioneers in medicine yesterday, today and tomorrow


Donna Parker, M.D., assistant dean for minority affairs. Photo by April Frawley-Birdwell

Donna Parker, M.D., assistant dean for minority affairs. Photo by April Frawley-Birdwell

African-Americans have contributed much to the medical field during the past few centuries, including many medical firsts.

But pioneers like James Durham, Solomon Carter Fuller and Charles Drew are not well-known, said Donna Parker,  assistant dean of minority affairs for the UF College of Medicine, during a lecture on the history of African-Americans in medicine on Feb.12. Durham was the first black physician to practice in the United States. Fuller, who studied neurodegenerative disorders, was one of five scientists selected to work with Alois Alzheimer in 1904. Drew founded and directed the American Red Cross blood bank in 1941.

Despite the progress made over the past century, only 2.2 percent of medical students and doctors were African-American in 2006, compared to 2.5 percent in 1910, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But Parker said she is hopeful that change is on the horizon.

“We have made great strides, but we have much more to grow,” Parker said. “We need to break down the stereotypes in television and the media. I’m hoping for more (changes) now with a president who looks different.”

The cost of medical education and the expectation for African-Americans to finish college and help support their families, as well as a lack of scholastic preparation and community examples have led fewer black students to pursue careers in medicine, Parker said.

Racism is still a factor, too, said Parker, citing an incident in 2000 at UF when police asked two black medical students to leave after finding them on campus studying late one night. It was not until a white classmate vouched for them that they were permitted to stay, Parker said.

She also shared some of her own experiences of discrimination during her time as a medical student at UF.

Parker remembered answering a question correctly and being ignored by the professor, only to have a white classmate give the same answer and be praised for it. While a student at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center, she recalled following her patient into the operating room and being ignored when gloves were passed to the others in the room.

Though not obvious signs of discrimination, these omissions were hurtful, Parker said.

Annie Song, 21, a first-year medical student, said many of Parker’s points surprised her, especially how the first black physician practiced during slavery and how recently UF integrated. UF’s first black student was accepted into the College of Law in 1958. The first African-American graduates from the College of Medicine — Reuben Brigety, M.D. and Earl Cotman, M.D. — graduated in 1970.

Parker said she thought the lecture was well-received.

“I hope it will stimulate people to think differently and realize the many contributions made by blacks,” she said.