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Black Public Health Heroes Who Made—And Are Making—History

For Black History Month, Bloomberg School faculty recognize individuals who shaped public health and continue to impact the field.

Aliza Rosen

In honor of Black History Month, we asked some of our faculty to identify Black public health icons who influenced the work they do here at the Bloomberg School. From individuals renowned in history books to those still actively saving lives, these are just some of the leaders who have shaped the field of public health.

Sir George Alleyne

George Alleyne

Sir George Alleyne is director emeritus of the Pan American Health Organization, which he led from 1995 to 2003, part of a long career committed to international health and health equity. A native of Barbados, he also served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean region from 2003 to 2010, working with policymakers, politicians, and communities to reduce HIV transmission and increase access to tools for prevention and treatment.

“In addition to his leadership and long-standing commitment to improve the health and well-being of those in the region, he has made notable contributions as a visiting faculty member in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School,” says Victoria Chou, PhD '11, MS, associate scientist in International Health. “He continues to inspire and educate the next generation of global health researchers and practitioners.”

F. DuBois Bowman

F Dubois Bowman

F. DuBois Bowman is the dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a researcher in high dimensional and complex data. As an undergraduate student majoring in mathematics, Bowman shifted his focus to biostatistics following a conversation with Bill Jenkins [see below]. "I remember leaving that conversation very excited,” Bowman told the UM Public Health community upon becoming dean. “Biostatistics seemed like a perfect field for bringing together my dual interests in quantitative approaches and mathematics, paired with the opportunity to improve health and make a positive impact."

Specializing in functional brain imaging data, Bowman researches mental health and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and depression, and explores how environmental exposures impact brain health and overall well-being. In 2005, Bowman joined the Bloomberg School as a visiting professor of Biostatistics. “Dr. Bowman has a career of deep contributions across a broad spectrum of activities, including leadership as a dean and department chair, research, teaching, and practice,” says Brian Caffo, PhD, MS, professor in Biostatistics.

Robert D. Bullard

Robert Bullard speaking at podium

Robert D. Bullard is founding director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice and distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Bullard was the first scientist to publish research (in support of Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation), showing how pollution in a person’s surroundings could impact their health—in this case, how it was affecting predominantly Black neighborhoods in Houston.

That study launched a new path for Bullard, who expanded his research across the southern U.S. and found the same alarming trends tying environmental oppression to systemic racism. “My job is to connect the dots between who gets what, when, where, and why when it comes to pollution,” Bullard explained upon receiving a 2020 Lifetime Achievement award from the UN Environment Programme.

“He is known as the ‘father of environmental justice,’” says Aisha Dickerson, PhD, MSPH, assistant professor in Epidemiology. “Dr. Bullard’s research and advocacy has led to the reduction of environmental burden in under-resourced communities with the goal of reducing environmental disparities and associated health risk in historically marginalized populations.”

Goldie S. Byrd

Goldie Byrd

Goldie S. Byrd is a professor of social sciences and health policy and director of the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at Wake Forest University. Throughout her career, she has led research into the genetic risk factors among people of color for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In 2014, she founded the Center for Outreach in Alzheimer’s, Aging, and Community Health at North Carolina A&T State University, which focuses on the impact of Alzheimer’s on African Americans and offers support and education to family caregivers.

“Dr. Byrd has advocated for more representation of underrepresented communities’ involvement in clinical research and has used innovative methods to engage such populations,” says Lauren Parker, PhD, MPH, an associate scientist in Health, Behavior and Society. “My grandmother utilized these caregiving supports while caring for my grandfather who had vascular dementia. Dr. Byrd’s forward approaches in community health have inspired and enhanced my strategies for engaging Black and Latino caregivers of people living with dementia in research.”

Virginia Caine

Virginia Caine

Virginia Caine is director and chief medical officer of the Marion County Public Health Department and an associate professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine’s Infectious Diseases Division. She served as president of the American Public Health Association, and in 2023 was named president-elect of the National Medical Association. Throughout her career, Caine has led efforts on both the local and national levels to educate providers about HIV/AIDS, expand community prevention efforts, and improve access to care.

“Dr. Caine has had a tremendous impact on my career and, as an infectious disease physician, on the health of people across the country,” says Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, PhD, MA, a visiting scholar in Health Policy and Management who worked as Caine’s assistant during graduate school. “Over the years, she continues to be a quadruple threat in the field: a practitioner, a researcher, service-oriented, and a student mentor.”

W.E.B. Du Bois

W E B Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, author, and one of the early scholar activists. He was also a founding member of the NAACP, the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the U.S. As the first African American to receive his PhD from Harvard, Du Bois “opened the door for many future Black students to train at Harvard and other predominantly white institutions,” says Keshia Pollack Porter, PhD '06, MPH, Bloomberg Centennial Chair of Health Policy and Management.

Du Bois’ seminal and highly acclaimed publication The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study was the first case study of a Black community in the U.S. “His work was groundbreaking and highlighted the social and health consequences of slavery, racism, and discrimination against African Americans,” says Pollack Porter.

Felicity Enders

Felicity Enders

Felicity Enders is a professor of biostatistics at Mayo Clinic and director of the Mayo Clinic Office for Research Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity. In addition to biostatistics education, Enders focuses on health care academia’s hidden curriculum: the values and behaviors students need to excel—such as empathy, assertiveness, and professionalism—but are not explicitly taught.The term has been applied to other education environments for decades but not academic health care research, until Enders and her team introduced it and explained its added burden on students from diverse backgrounds.

Enders received her PhD in biostatistics and MPH from the Bloomberg School and “since then has done groundbreaking work at the Mayo Clinic, including on topics that include teaching biostatistics, highlighting and informing regarding the hidden curriculum for research, and important collaborative projects in psychology and women’s health, among other areas,” says Liz Stuart, PhD, professor and department chair of Biostatistics. “She has helped our field think more deeply about diversity and inclusion, both for institutions and in data analysis and study design.”

Donald Hopkins

Donald Hopkins speaking at podium

Donald Hopkins is the Special Advisor for Guinea Worm Eradication at the Carter Center, where he previously served as director of all health programs. When Hopkins joined the Carter Center in 1986 to lead its efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease and river blindness globally, there were approximately 3.5 million human cases annually of Guinea worm disease. In 2023, only 13 human cases were recorded, thanks largely to the campaign designed by Hopkins.

“Donald Hopkins is a great public health hero,” says Kawsar Talaat, MD, an associate professor in International Health. “He led the CDC’s efforts to eliminate smallpox in Sierra Leone and India, and rose through the ranks to be acting director of the CDC in 1985.” Sierra Leone had the highest rate of smallpox in the world when Hopkins arrived there in 1966 to lead implementation of the CDC’s new strategy of surveillance and containment; the country reported its last case of smallpox just three years later. After also heading successful smallpox eradication efforts in India, Hopkins went on to write the Pulitzer-nominated book The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History.

Sherman James

Sherman James

Sherman James is the Susan B. King Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “He was one of the key figures in the development of social epidemiology,” says David Celentano, ScD '77, MHS '75, professor in Epidemiology, referring to James’ research into how socioeconomic circumstances, culture, and racism influence health disparities.

“He was a principal investigator of the stress that Blackpeople face, particularly in the rural South and in the diaspora to the North,” says Celentano. Trained as a social psychologist, James created the term “John Henryism,” which describes the physical health impacts caused by the stress of thriving in the face of adversity. He based the term—and his associated hypothesis and measurement methods—on John Henry, a Black American folk hero who tried his own strength against that of a machine, a challenge he won, only to die of exhaustion.

Loretta Sweet Jemmott

Loretta Sweet Jemmott

Loretta Sweet Jemmott is Drexel University’s vice president of Health and Health Equity and a professor at its College of Nursing and Health Professions. She is one of the U.S.’s most prominent researchers in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention, with a particular focus on African American adolescents and adults.

By prioritizing understanding a community’s culture, issues, values, and needs, Jemmott has built effective community-based strategies to reduce STI risk and incidence. “She and her husband, John B. Jemmott, created several of the evidence-based interventions used by the CDC to prevent negative sexual health outcomes, like unwanted pregnancy, STIs, and HIV,” says Terrinieka Powell, PhD, MA, associate professor in Population, Family and Reproductive Health and vice chair of the Office of Inclusion, Diversity, Anti-racism and Equity.

Among Jemmott’s 100+ published works is the curriculum Making Proud Choices! An Evidence-Based, Safer-Sex Approach to Teen Pregnancy and HIV/STI Prevention. “We implemented Making Proud Choices! with high schools across the city in our OAH grant in partnership with the Baltimore City Health Department and Baltimore City Public Schools.”

Bill Jenkins

Bill Jenkins

William (Bill) Jenkins was a public health researcher, statistician, and professor who dedicated his career to racial equity in health care. He founded multiple organizations and programs to improve health outcomes and reduce disparities for people of color, including  Morehouse College’s Public Health Sciences Institute, the Master of Public Health Program at Morehouse School of Medicine, and the Society for the Analysis of African American Public Health Issues.

Jenkins is best known for his efforts to end the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and his subsequent support ensuring that the participants and their families received lifelong medical and health care services. “He really had a social justice and a civil rights approach to public health,” says Renee Johnson, PhD, MPH, a professor in Mental Health who was first introduced to public health in a class taught by Jenkins.

His advocacy around the ethics and impacts of the Tuskegee Study led the U.S. government to issue a formal apology. “That was a lesson about the type of scientist I want to be,” Johnson says. “Not only rigorous in terms of statistics and epidemiology, but also committed to acting with integrity, and ensuring that people who participate in research studies are treated fairly, humanely, and with dignity.”

Ruth E. Moore

Ruth Moore

In 1933, Ruth E. Moore became both the first Black woman to be awarded a PhD in the natural sciences and the first Black scientist of any gender to be awarded a PhD in bacteriology. A few years later, in 1936, she also became the first Black member of the American Society for Microbiology. Her research career continued at Howard University under the mentorship of Hildrus Poindexter, a Black pioneer in clinical microbiology, and she succeeded him as the chair of Microbiology at Howard University School of Medicine.

“Dr. Moore was a pioneer in the field of microbiology, facing a great deal of challenges and restrictions as a Black female scientist,” says Kimberly Davis, PhD, MSc, an assistant professor in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. Her PhD dissertation focused on the isolation and detection of the tuberculosis-causing microbe Mycobacterium tuberculosis—at a time when tuberculosis was the second-leading cause of death in the U.S.—and would be referenced in work that helped scientists understand and control the disease. She also published some of the earliest research into the microbiome, looking at how microorganisms in the gut respond to antibiotics.

Lisa Newman

Lisa Newman

Lisa Newman is the Chief of Breast Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an internationally renowned clinical and public health researcher in breast cancer management and disparities.

Newman also oversees an international breast cancer research and training program that involves physicians and researchers in Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, Haiti, Barbados, and Canada, and has provided surgical and cancer care to patients in these countries at no cost to them. “I accompanied this group to Ghana as part of my PhD training and learned so much about cancer from an international perspective, which has informed my own work as a new faculty member here at Johns Hopkins,” says Brittany Jenkins-Lord, PhD, MPH ’20, MS, an assistant professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“Dr. Newman is truly a public health hero,” says Jenkins-Lord. “She continues to make strides in our understanding of breast cancer disparities through her groundbreaking work in genetics, medicine, and cancer risk and prevention in the U.S. and abroad.”

James McCune Smith

Portrait drawing of James McCune Smith

In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first African American to earn a medical degree, at the University of Glasgow, after being denied admission to U.S. universities due to his race. He returned to the U.S., where he became the first African American physician in the U.S., opened the country’s first Black-owned pharmacy, and was the first African American to publish peer-reviewed articles in medical journals.

Despite his qualifications, Smith was denied membership in prominent medical associations. “Nevertheless, Dr. Smith continued to practice medicine and write medical reviews, highlighting the importance of using controlled comparison groups in medical research,” says Krystal Lee, EdD, MPA, a research associate in Health, Behavior and Society. “By the time of his death in 1865, Dr. Smith was a well-known doctor, apothecary, medical author, and statistician who Frederick Douglass referred to as the single most important influence on his life.”