New Course Tells Untold Stories of Black Health Leaders

February 3, 2021

A new Columbia Mailman School course will introduce students to health leaders of color whose impact is largely absent from history books. From African American physicians whose work has gone unnoticed to policymakers whose legacy has yet to be written, the course in the Department of Health Policy and Management will review these unsung heroes, their impact, the discrimination and structural racism they faced, and the work they left behind.

In her seven-week course titled “The Untold Stories in U.S. Health Policy History,” instructor Heather Butts will draw students‘ attention to exemplary Black Americans in healthcare dating back to the 1800s. In the spirit of Black History Month, she offered a sneak peek for Transmission:

Virginia Alexander was a pioneering Black doctor and public health expert. In a clinic she built in her Philadelphia home, she treated Black patients who experienced racism from white staff in local hospitals. She earned a public health degree and led research that showed how segregation and racism harmed Black Americans’ health. She was also an early advocate for a national health insurance system. 

Alexander Thomas Augusta was the first Black surgeon commissioned in the Union Army during the Civil War and the first Black professor of medicine in the United States. He was instrumental in founding the institutions that later became the hospital and medical college of Howard University and the National Medical Association. He was active in struggles to end discrimination on streetcars in Washington, D.C.

Bernard Challenor, a professor and acting dean at the Columbia Mailman School from 1978-80, was the first African American appointed to be an Epidemiological Intelligence Service Officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1965. He also worked at the World Health Organization and the United States Public Health Service. Awarded each year, the Challenor Spirit Prize recognizes a member of the graduating class who best exemplifies the character of the award’s namesake.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. After the Civil War, she moved from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, where she treated formerly enslaved people without access to medical care. In 1883, she published her Book of Medical Discourses, which provides guidance on maternal and child health. “There is no doubt that thousands of little ones annually die at our very doors, from diseases which could have been prevented,” she wrote.

Vivien Thomas was a laboratory supervisor who developed a surgical procedure used to treat blue baby syndrome. The grandson of enslaved people, Thomas was forced to abandon his dream to attend college and become a doctor. While he was doing the work of a postdoctoral lab researcher, he was classified and paid as a janitor. Students will watch the movie Something the Lord Made, in which Thomas is portrayed by Mos Def.

The Stories Behind “Untold Stories”

Beginning on March 9, Heather Butts will guide students in discussions of groundbreaking Black American health leaders alongside an exploration of concepts and controversies in health policy, such as the rise of medical specialization and the healthcare consumer, the persistence of the federal health research apparatus, and the role of pharmaceutical companies in promoting health “problems.”

The class of 20 will also focus on specific policies that have shaped structural racism and bias in healthcare policy—for example, redlining, a racist mortgage appraisal policy dating to the 1930s that led to food deserts and environmental injustices.

As their final project, students will research a historical figure or moment and share their findings in a paper and presentation, and the resulting untold stories will be published online. “Students can pick anyone they would like, whose story is ‘untold.’ Part of the class will be to unpack what that means over the first few weeks,” she says.

Buttss own history is steeped in healthcare. She was raised by a Columbia psychiatrist and a psychiatric social worker. She majored in history at Princeton, after which she earned a law degree at St. John’s, an MPH at Harvard, and an M.A. in education at Teachers College. Her triplet sisters are both surgeons. At Harvard, her interest in Black history grew, eventually leading her to write the book, “African American Medicine in Washington, D.C.: Healing the Capital During the Civil War Era.”

Butts first became interested in Black history and Civil War history when as a teenager she saw the film Glory, a heart-rending drama about the Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Union Army's first African-American regiment in the Civil War. She recalls: “I left the theater and drying my tears, I thought to myself, ‘How did I get through high school history without hearing about these people?’ Later, I asked my high school history teacher the same question. He told me, ‘You’re right to be indignant.’ I realized that if I hadn’t heard this story then there must be a million other stories like it. I decided then that I wanted to learn about as many of them as I can.”

Over the last decade, Butts has taught classes at the Columbia Mailman School, including public health law and public health ethics. She also runs the nonprofit H.E.A.L.T.H for Youths, Inc., which helps underserved youth with college readiness. Recently, she spoke with a high school class in Brooklyn, not long after the passing of Hank Aaron. “Not one of the students knew who he was,” she says. “Hank Aaron isn’t exactly an ‘untold story,’ but for younger generations, he isn’t well known either. … There is a 50- to 60-year window and once you get past that the stories are often lost or difficult to access. This is why it’s so important to preserve our history.”

Feb. 8 update: Listen to Butts on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show

Photo credits, clockwise from top left: Alexander Thomas Augusta; Rebecca Lee Crumpler, photo: Meserette Kentake; Cover of A Book of Medical Discourses by Rebecca Lee Crumpler; Vivien Thomas in the lab; Dr. Virginia M. Alexander in her office, 1934, photo: University of Pennsylvania Archives; Cultural resistance to smallpox vaccination in West Africa, by Bernard Challenor, 1968, from the David J. Sencer CDC Museum.