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Influential Black Women in Medical History

February 14, 2023

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner: The Inventor of the Menstrual Pad

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was born in 1912 in North Carolina to a family of inventors. Her grandfather created a train signal with three distinct colours. A small clothing press was created by her father, a preacher, who Mary credited with sparking her initial curiosity about learning new things. Mildred, Mary’s sister, was also an inventor and later found success by creating and marketing board games. 

At age six, Mary began inventing small things that improved convenience around the house. For example, her first invention was a device that oiled creaky door hinges in her home.

Before Mary’s invention of the menstrual pad, women were using cloth rags for their periods. However, there was a lot of anxiety around wearing rags as leaking was quite frequent. Tampons were also accessible, but their use was not very popular, as it was considered vulgar to use them. All of this contributed to the notion that women must stay inside and hidden when they had their periods. 

It was not until Mary was in her 40’s that she recognized that women needed more advanced and sanitary technology when they were menstruating. Mary’s invention offered a convenient and anxiety-free mechanism that allowed women to continue their lives as usual, even while bleeding. 

It is no doubt that Mary’s family was incredibly talented, but back then being talented did not mean success for Black people. Inventions were either stolen or dismissed. Due to the racial prejudice of this time, Mary’s invention would not be used until 30 years after she created it. 


Dr. Jocelyn Elders: The first African American and second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service, and the first person in the state of Arkansas to become a board-certified paediatric endocrinologist.

Born in 1933 in Arkansas to a family of eight children, Jocelyn rarely had time to go to school as she was expected to help out around the family home. Nonetheless, Jocelyn worked very hard at home as well as with school work, and graduated from high school with a scholarship to the all-black liberal arts Philander Smith College in Little Rock. (https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_98.html)

From there, Jocelyn joined the military and was trained in physical therapy at the Brooke Army Medical Centre. (https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_98.html) After her discharge, she pursued a medical degree. Soon after graduating, she became the chief resident in charge of an all-white, all-male staff. After a few years, Jocelyn pursued paediatric endocrinology research, which led to helping patients control their fertility and advising them on when and how to start a family. 

In 1987, Governor Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders the director of the Arkansas’ Department of Health. She rattled conservatives and some religious groups as she pushed for clinics and broader sex education. In 1989, Dr. Elder’s research was included in sex education in all K-12 school curricula for the United States. She also enlarged the state’s prenatal care program, and nearly doubled children’s immunisation rates between 1987 and 1992. In 1993, President Clinton appointed Dr. Elders to be the U.S. Surgeon General. In that role, she advocated for many progressive policies on women’s reproductive health. 


The Granny Midwives

1: Maude Callen (1898-1990)

Maude was born in 1898 in Florida and was raised by her physician uncle (https://scafricanamerican.com/honorees/maude-e-callen/). Thanks to her uncle’s medical wisdom, Maude grew to love the field of medicine and soon began working as a nurse in South Carolina. While she was working, she noticed that many of the people she was helping were quite poor and could not access the help she was providing. As a result, Maude decided to open her own practice in Berkeley County, a predominantly low income Black community. (https://www.hannahillphotography.com/hanna-hill-photography-blog/5-black-american-midwives) In addition to her own clinic, Maude and her husband added an extension to their home, where she also saw patients. It is estimated that Maude delivered between 600 to 800 babies in her sixty-two years of practice (https://www.hannahillphotography.com/hanna-hill-photography-blog/5-black-american-midwives). She also imparted her knowledge of midwifery to other local women, leaving a legacy of maternity care throughout her region.

2: Onnie Lee Logan (1910-1995)

Onnie was born in 1910 in Alabama to a mother who was a practising midwife. Inspired by her mother’s line of work, Onnie went on to carry out her mother’s legacy as a midwife. However, due to the employment barriers Black women faced, Onnie had trouble getting licensed and had to work as a house maid for wealthy white families to support herself. Most of Onnie’s work was in Jim Crow Alabama, when most hospitals refused to care for Black birthing mothers (https://www.hannahillphotography.com/hanna-hill-photography-blog/5-black-american-midwives). 

Despite these barriers, Onnie did not give up and continued to work selflessly until she finally became licensed in 1949. Then she became responsible for the births of almost every child of all races born between 1931 and 1984 in Pichard and Crighton. Onnie was the last “granny midwife” of Alabama, as her practice of midwifery was institutionalised and the country told her she was no longer needed. While Onnie’s story is a hard one, she portrayed great strength and selflessness, and for that her legacy will never be forgotten. 

3: Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900-1966)

Mary was born in 1900 in Georgia, where she lived with her family. Unfortunately, due to her family’s money struggles, she was taken out of school in third grade. Years later, Mary moved to Alabama where she served as a training apprentice under Onnie Lee Logan (https://medium.com/nurses-you-should-know/mary-francis-hill-coley-1e039176a347).

When her training was complete, Mary moved back to Georgia. She only started working when her husband left her with their ten children. She started her practice to pay the bills and to keep her children fed. Even with only a third grade education, Mary became very skilled and built a prosperous company offering a variety of birth services and care for the most underprivileged neighbourhoods in the South during the Jim Crow era.

In spite of early 20th-century limits and scrutiny of midwifery, Mary was able to assist expecting families for more than three decades and was a strong supporter of Black families in a highly segregated part of Georgia. She is estimated to have delivered 3,000 babies in her career and was renowned for bridging healthcare shortages in the local area. (https://www.hannahillphotography.com/hanna-hill-photography-blog/5-black-american-midwives)

In 1952, a documentary film, “All my Babies,” was made about Mary in order to teach others about  the practice of midwifery. This film became controversial because it showed a live birth. However, it helped fight the stigma around labour and delivery, and shone a light on the powerful work the Granny Midwives did. 

4: Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1891)

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in 1818 in Georgia. She did not know her parents as she was sold at a very young age. During her time on a Georgia plantation she was taught the art of herbalism and midwifery by the older women there. She began attending births, and used her knowledge and skills to help her fellow slaves, as well as the slave owners. 

Biddy was moved around frequently between plantations. While she was in California in 1851, it was declared a free state. A judge finally granted Biddy and her three children freedom in 1856. As a free woman, Biddy moved to Los Angeles where she worked as a midwife and nurse delivering hundreds of babies. She eventually amassed enough income to become the first Black woman in Los Angeles to own land, and she became a wealthy and successful businesswoman. Until her death in 1891, she built facilities for the most vulnerable members of her neighbourhood.


5: Margaret Charles Smith (1906-2004)

Margaret was born 1906 in Alabama and was raised by her grandmother, who was a former slave. Due to her mother’s status, she did not have access to any formal education. Margaret unintentionally began her career as a midwife at age five when she was asked to stay with her cousin’s wife while her husband ran to get a midwife— her cousin went into quick labour and Margarey delivered the baby with no issues (http://www.awhf.org/mcsmith.html).

From then on, Margaret became one of the most skilled Granny Midwives as she delivered 3,500 babies without losing a single mother. In 1949, she became one of the first midwives in Alabama to practise after obtaining permission from the Greene County Public Health Team. During the era of segregation, she was also one of the few options for Black moms seeking assistance with childbirth.


Marilyn Hugh Gaston, MD (1939-

Since age nine, Marilyn knew she wanted to become a doctor. Because she was poor and Black, she was advised against pursuing her dream of being a doctor (https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshallfame/html/gaston.html).

Undeterred, Marilyn pursued a medical degree and began working as an intern in Philadelphia General Hospital in 1964. She chose to work at this hospital because it was in a low income neighbourhood in a community that really needed better healthcare. In recognition of her dedication, Lincoln Heights and Cincinnati established a day in her honour (https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/educ/exhibits/womenshallfame/html/gaston.html.)

Once, when a baby was admitted to her hospital with a swollen hand, Marilyn had never seen this pathology before and began to research sickle cell disease. She eventually became Deputy Branch Chief of the National Institutes of Health’s Sickle Cell Disease Branch. Her revolutionary 1986 research resulted in the creation of a national newborn screening program for sickle cell disease. Her research demonstrated the advantages of newborn screening for sickle cell disease, as well as the efficacy of penicillin in preventing sepsis infection, which can be fatal in infants with the condition. (https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/celebrating-10-african-american-medical-pioneers).


Written By:

Marien De Freitas

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