In celebration of Black History Month, USGLC has highlighted the contributions of Black Americans to U.S. leadership in global diplomacy and development—both past and present. We could not end the month without featuring key individuals in the Black community who have made significant contributions to scientific discovery in the United States, and through global health diplomacy, shared knowledge to help build a safer and stronger world.
Global health diplomacy leverages a widely agreed-upon goal—a healthier, safer world—to develop the foundation for diplomatic relations in other sectors. As a leader in global health, the United States has made significant contributions to global health diplomacy efforts. From being a top financial contributor to global health development to fostering successful programs such as PEPFAR, America’s leadership has significantly impacted the health and safety of people around the world – impacts which would not have been possible without the contributions of Black Americans to health and science. Here are just three of the influential Black Americans in science and medicine whose work continues to save lives around the world each day.
- Dr. Charles Richard Drew became a doctor and medical researcher after the devastating loss of his sister during the 1918 Flu. He is considered the “Father of the Blood Bank” for his work in the pioneering technology of blood preservation, which is critical for treating individuals with anemia, sickle cell, cancer, and other illnesses. After being piloted on a large scale during World War II, the blood preservation practice was adopted by the Red Cross globally. While Drew distanced himself from the Red Cross for a period of time due to then-racially discriminating policies on blood donation which have since been repealed, today paid blood plasma donations are permitted across the United States. Further, 70% of the global supply of plasma comes from the United States. Not only do we owe this technological development to Dr. Drew, but his contribution has also led to diplomatic leadership in blood donations, a lifesaving invention advancing global good.
- Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett conducted research that helped develop the new mRNA technology used by Moderna to create its COVID-19 vaccine. According to Bloomberg, more than 10.7 billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccine from suppliers, including Moderna, have been administered across 184 countries. The U.S. has contributed over 470 million of these doses worldwide and over 165 million to African countries, making it the top distributor. Dr. Corbett’s research and leadership is helping save lives around the world and enable the United States to take a leading role in providing global pandemic response resources.
- Dr. Marilyn Hughes Gaston, having experienced racism and poverty as a child, dedicated her medical career to providing access to quality health care to poor and underserved communities. She was the first Black woman to lead the Bureau of Primary Health Care in the Department of Health and Human Services. Her 1986 study of sickle-cell disease established nationwide screening and the use of penicillin as treatment for newborns who test for the disorder. Sickle-cell disease is a blood disorder that disproportionately affects Black children and adults. Her research on the disorder and the use of penicillin as life-saving preventative medicine became a central policy to the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Her work has made remarkable advancements to public health, especially in the United States and Africa.
Doctors Drew, Corbett, and Gaston are important figures to U.S. and global health; there are many more Black Americans who have contributed and are contributing to scientific discovery and advancing American leadership in global health diplomacy. Much of the medical work the U.S. engages in abroad—from the prevention of infectious diseases, to supporting safe deliveries for mothers and babies, to combatting COVID-19, would not be as successful without these individuals. In the face of advancement, there is still much progress to be made in global health around the world and providing equitable, safe health care especially for Black Americans and people in Africa. America is safer and stronger when people can live healthy and productive lives around the world, and global health diplomacy, strengthened by the discoveries of Black Americans, is leading the way.