Honoring Trailblazing Women in the Pursuit of Health Equity
Posted March 24, 2023
By Triesta Fowler, M.D.
Scientific Diversity Officer, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
Monica Webb Hooper, Ph.D.
Deputy Director, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
March is women’s history month, and we thank and celebrate women across the U.S. and globally for their many essential contributions to science and medicine. Entering and succeeding in a field of study and/or professional practice, especially as a member of an underrepresented group is no small feat. Getting there often means beating the odds and rising above continual challenges. Women’s history includes many exemplars of such formidable efforts, people who are deserving of celebrations this, and every, month.
In this blog, we commemorate the work and legacies of pioneering women whose historic accomplishments made critical strides toward improving minority health, reducing disparities, and advancing health equity, from the late 1800s to today.
Trailblazing Women in Science
In 1864, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) became the first African American woman to obtain an M.D. degree at the New England Female Medical College in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Crumpler provided medical care to formerly enslaved people at the Freedmen’s Bureau in Richmond, Virginia, and later took care of patients in her home in Boston regardless of their ability to pay. She also published the first medical text by an African American author in 1883 entitled A Book of Medical Discourses, which focused on women and children’s health and was based on journal notes she kept while in practice.
In 1933, Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser (unknown birth year – 1934) became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. With a passion for education, she taught at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and was interested in personality, self-esteem, and adjustment among children. Her research focused on the impact of racism on the education and educational experiences of African American children and was cited in the debates leading to the landmark 1954 civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Drs. Crumpler and Prosser were remarkable women who blazed the trails so that we could follow in their footsteps. They overcame racial discrimination, biases, segregation, and societal and cultural norms that prevented women from working outside of the home, and barred Black women from educational opportunities. They helped launch the cross-cutting fields of minority health and health disparities research. And while there has been some progress, there remains much more work to be done. About 37.1% of total active physicians are women (American Medical Association 2021), but only 2.8% are Black women. About 69% of psychologists are women, but just 5% are Black (women and men combined).
NIMHD’s Very Own Trailblazer
We also acknowledge and celebrate a modern-day pioneer in the field, Dr. Anna María Nápoles, Scientific Director of the Division of Intramural Research at NIMHD, who retired from federal service on February 28, 2023. Dr. Nápoles is a behavioral epidemiologist and the first Latina named to the position of Scientific Director at an NIH Institute. She worked tirelessly to grow the Division and maintained a steadfast commitment to mentorship and sponsorship. We benefitted tremendously from her expertise and outstanding leadership.
We honor the legacies of these amazing individuals with a daily commitment to mentor and sponsor the next generation of scientists as they maximize their potential. We encourage others to learn about the many historic women in science and medicine, and to emulate their persistence and determination for improving the health of populations with health disparities.
NIMHD is committed to supporting the careers of all women, and a culture that supports recruitment and retention. In science and medicine, we know that this must include opportunities for mentorship, professional network development, and research funding, which are associated with increased productivity, career satisfaction, and achievement of professional goals and skills.
NIMHD Supports Women
We strongly encourage investigators supported by eligible grants to identify and support scientists through our funding mechanisms.
Our flagship program, the annual Health Disparities Research Institute, is a big draw for early career investigators and an opportunity to foster peer relationships and expand professional networks. The idea of a shared vulnerability and the ability to connect is key to building knowledge and skills and promoting wellness.
In short, NIMHD has resources in place to support women’s professional trajectories and success. And we are proud that over half of principal investigators supported by grants awarded by NIMHD identify as women.
Dr. Triesta Fowler leads NIMHD diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility efforts in collaboration with NIMHD leadership and staff. She was previously a medical officer and Director of Communications and Outreach within the Division of Intramural Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), leading key diversity activities. She began her work in diversity outreach and engagement at NICHD in 2007 as the director and creator of The National Child and Maternal Health Education Program.
Dr. Monica Webb Hooper is an internationally recognized translational behavioral scientist and licensed clinical health psychologist. She has dedicated her career to science that benefits and serves communities with a focus on chronic illness prevention and health behavior change. Her overarching goal is to do the work necessary to produce meaningful, positive change and assure health equity. Before joining NIMHD, Dr. Webb Hooper was a tenured Professor of Oncology, Family Medicine & Community Health, and Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and Associate Director for Cancer Disparities Research at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center.