Reducing health disparities in the United States has been a top priority for our health care system in these early years of the 21st century. But efforts to narrow the health gap between black and white patients go much farther back, to the start of the previous century when the first African-Americans were graduating from medical schools and Ph.D. programs around the United States. Those early black professionals looked at the state of African-American health at the turn of the 20th century and were appalled, said Vanessa Northington Gamble, professor of medical humanities and history at George Washington University, at her MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics seminar in late April. No less a figure than Booker T. Washington spoke out about the direct link between African-American health and civil rights in the early 1900’s, saying:
“Without health … it will be impossible for us to have permanent success in business, in property getting, [and] in acquiring education …. Without health and long life all else fails.”
The solutions those black intellectuals chose to improve the health of their race, in a time of national segregation, were very different from the options under consideration today. But Gamble said that discussion of those efforts is missing from the conversation about health disparities interventions in today’s society.
“We don’t talk about the history of these disparities – what are some of the programs that came in the past to address these disparities,” Gamble said. “I do think that many people think it’s only been in the past 20 to 25 years… but I want to talk about what the black community did to take care of itself.”
At the time, black patients faced segregated hospitals and racist theories, such as those put forth by statistician Frederick L. Hoffman in his book, “Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro.” Hoffman, an actuary for Prudential insurance, argued that the company should not cover African-Americans because they were destined to die out due to unchangeable biological factors of their race. To refute those claims, W.E.B. Du Bois published his 1906 study, “The Health and Physique of the Negro American,” which pinpointed socioeconomic factors, rather than biology, as the cause of poor health in the black community.
“Du Bois agreed that the health status of African-Americans was worse than that of white Americans,” Gamble said. “Where there was disagreement was on what were the causes of what we would now call health disparities or inequities…for example, he said the high infant mortality rate in Philadelphia was not a ‘Negro affair,’ but an index of social conditions.”
In the wake of that research, black professionals united to try to beat back higher rates of infant mortality, pneumonia, and tuberculosis – the latter of which Du Bois called “the greatest enemy of black people.” One of the best strategies, in the face of segregated hospitals and discrimination from white physicians, was to establish black hospitals to improve access to health care. One example on the South Side of Chicago was Provident Hospital, founded in 1891 by Emma Reynolds and Daniel Hale Williams, who would go on to perform the first successful open-heart surgery there. Similarly, black doctors formed the National Medical Association in 1895, because of their difficulties in joining the American Medical Association. Playing along with segregation wasn’t unanimously popular in the black population of the time; in fact, Gamble said one minister prayed Provident would burn to the ground because it catered to racism.
“You have to look at [black hospitals] in the context of segregation,” Gamble said. “Many black physicians said we wish we didn’t have to start black hospitals, but if we wait for integration, the health of the race would suffer.”
Other disparity-fighting efforts of the time were more grassroots than bricks and mortar. Washington and Monroe Work, a sociologist at the Tuskegee Institute, started National Health Improvement Week (later Negro Health Week), organizing black churches and schools around the country to hold immunization, exercise, and examination programs. Dorothy Ferebee, one of the first black women physicians in the United States, created the Mississippi Health Project with the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, traveling through the southern state to do thousands of immunizations and exams. With the desegregation of hospitals by the Civil Rights Act, many of these programs ended and black hospitals shut their doors. But as similar community health efforts are formed to fight lingering disparities between blacks and whites in today’s United States, it’s important to look back and learn from the accomplishments and struggles of long ago.
“When you look at the history, we have to look at what the communities have done,” Gamble said. “What are the histories of these disparities? What can we learn from how communities took care of themselves? And as we look back, we also need to look forward to the day when we’re not talking about these disparities.”
[Each academic year, the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics organizes a series of lunchtime seminars by physicians, biologists, economists, social scientists and other experts covering the biggest questions in health care and ethics. This year’s theme is “Health Disparities: Local, National, Global,” and the series was put together with the Urban Health Initiative, the Global Health Initiative, and Finding Answers. ScienceLife will carry regular coverage of this unique series, and video of the lectures will be posted when available.]