Author: Sara Habibipour
I'm starting a new 4-part series on black women in medicine to spread awareness about the great contributions that they have made in medicine. Without these intelligent women and their brilliant discoveries, the field of medicine would not be the same. By breaking both gender and racial norms, these women completely altered medical history.
By the age of nine, Marilyn Hughes Gaston knew that she wanted to be a physician after her mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer and passed out in front of her in their living room. Because they were poor and uninsured, she made it her mission to help people in similar situations as her family. She became dissuaded to pursue her dream due to her financial situation, therefore majoring in zoology. But she was eventually encouraged by mentors to attend medical school anyways. There, she was one of six women in her graduating class and was the only African American.
Dr. Gaston's pivotal experience occurred when a baby with a swollen, infected hand presented to the hospital. Her mentor suggested that it could possibly be due to sickle cell disease, which hadn't occurred to her. She quickly committed her career to learning more about the disease which affects millions globally. In 1986, Dr. Gaston published a study (abstract linked here) which proved the effectiveness of giving babies with sickle-cell disease penicillin to prevent a fatal septic infection. Her study also led to the early screening of newborn babies for sickle-cell disease in order to prevent infection.
In 1990, Dr. Gaston became the first black female physician to be appointed to the Health Resources and Services Administration's Bureau of Primary Health Care. She was also the second black woman to be the assistant surgeon general and achieve the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, earning all of the awards and honors that they bestow.