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For the Public Health by Cassandra Arroya, Ph.D.

Black pioneers made significant contributions to medicine in U.S.

During the annual celebration of Black History Month, it is important to recognize and reflect on the major contributions of African Americans to the health, well-being and safety of Americans and the greater global community.
    Public health pioneer Garrett Morgan is best known for inventing the automatic traffic signal. Morgan patented his traffic signal in 1923, and today’s modern traffic lights are based upon his original design.Morgan’s other great public health invention was the gas mask. When he invented the Safety Hood in 1912, many were awed by the strange device. It wasn’t until 1916, when an explosion occurred in a tunnel being dug under Lake Erie, that people saw the benefits of the Safety Hood in action. Garrett and his brother wore the hood to rescue several workers, and orders came pouring in. Unfortunately, many of these orders were cancelled when it was discovered that Morgan was a black man. With the outbreak of World War I and the use of poisonous gases, Morgan’s Safety Hood was used by the U.S. Army to save the lives of thousands of soldiers. These inventions — great advances for public safety at the time of creation—are still used today.
    Another well known African American contributor to public health is Dr. Charles Drew. Dr. Drew developed a technique for the long-term storage of blood plasma. Prior to this, blood could not be stored for more than two days. He also discovered that while everyone has a certain blood type and therefore cannot get a full blood transfusion from someone with a different type, everyone has the same type of plasma.  He eventually was named a project director at the American Red Cross but resigned after the U.S. War Department mandated that blood taken from white donors should be segregated from that of black donors. Over the years, Dr. Drew has been considered one of the most honored and respected figures in the medical and public health fields, and his development of the blood plasma bank has given a second chance for life to millions.
    A pioneer in chemistry and advocate for black scientists, Dr. Percy Julian is not a widely recognized name. After an early life of much work and adversity, Julian was successful and became internationally hailed for his achievement in the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used as a treatment for glaucoma. Julian developed a soy protein product that worked as a flame retardant, and the U.S. Navy used it during World War II, saving the lives of countless sailors.         Julian also developed an affordable way to make male and female hormones from soy beans, helping to prevent miscarriages and to fight cancer and other illness. He also developed a synthetic version of cortisone, which greatly relieved the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Real cortisone was extremely expensive, but with Julian’s soy-based substitute, millions of sufferers around the world found relief at a reasonable price.
    While these are just a few snapshots of African Americans who have made great contributions to medicine and public health, there are many more. Without these pioneers, who saw people as people and not colors, many lives would have been lost when there was room for prevention. As we continue in the fight to eliminate health disparities and create health equity, people of the world are called upon to remember that innovation does not limit itself by color, and neither should we.
    Cassandra Arroyo, MS, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Masters Program Director in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University.

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