09 October 2020
Matthew Barrows By Matthew Barrows

Why Science's Black History Is Important Now.

It’s never been so important to embrace Black History Month.

2020 has been a tough year. But it’s shown us that when we come together to learn and understand issues, they can be overcome.

As a society, myself included, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Prejudice is still rife (both conscious and unconscious), so it’s crucial that we educate ourselves.

That’s why I decided look-up what’s been accomplished by black people in science and healthcare. I wanted to understand the black history of these spaces, so that I could see the impact that black people have had on the areas I recruit for in life science.

Daniel hale Williams, pioneering surgeon.

My research started with the world’s first successful heart surgery, which was performed by Daniel hale Williams back in 1893.

The more I read about Daniel, the more inspiring I found him. As the son of a barber, he didn’t come from a wealthy background and as a black man of that era not much was expected of him. Nevertheless, Daniel was determined to educate himself and earn his living in healthcare.

People who don’t make provision for their own sick and suffering are not worthy of civilisation.

Daniel Hale Williams.

By the age of 20, he was an apprentice to a former surgeon general in Wisconsin. He then studied medicine at Chicago Medical College and went onto own the first black-owned hospital in America.

Percy Lavon Julian, created a treatment for glaucoma.

Staying in US healthcare, my research pointed me to Percy Lavon Julian who was a research chemist during the early 20th century that worked in chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants.

In 1935, he earned international acclaim by synthesizing physostigmine from the calabar bean to create a drug treatment for glaucoma. However, despite his success, his university refused to make him a full professor because of his race.

It’s sad to think that someone so talented wasn’t accepted by his academic community because of the colour of his skin.

Dr Charles Drew, invented blood banks.

Another brilliant black man of the 20th century was Dr Charles Drew who developed new methods for storing blood for transfusions and created the first blood bank in 1941. Dr Drew made many innovations that are now mainstays of blood collections, such as mobile blood banks.

He also did important work during World War II as the director of Blood for Britain. This program shipped blood and plasma to treat civilians and soldiers who were fighting on behalf of the allies oversees.

His work at Blood for Britain is inspirational, considering the racism and segregation he was condemned to at the time. Originally the US army banned black people from donating blood and plasma. Even when this was lifted, they could only donate to other black people.

Marie M. Daly, first African American woman to receive a PhD.

Moving over to a milestone for academia, Marie M. Daly made history in 1955 as the first African American woman to receive a PhD in chemistry in the US. This achievement is even more special when you consider that, even in 2020, only 6% of the people that earn a PhD in the US are black.

This wasn’t enough for Marie though. As an American biochemist, she was also the first to establish that hypertension was a precursor to atherosclerosis, as well as the first to identify a relationship between cholesterol and clogged arteries.

There were also revolutionary, 20th century achievements made in telecommunications by black people that have had a major impact on healthcare – hear me out for a second.

Walter Lincoln Hawkins, paved the way for telehealth.

In 1956, Walter Lincoln Hawkins, an expert in polymer chemistry, helped make universal telephone service possible by developing a durable plastic to cover telephone wires. The new coating saved billions of dollars and enabled the expansion of telephone service around the world and continues to be used today.

Dr Shirley Ann Jackson, paved the way for telehealth.

Dr Shirley Ann Jackson then took this further with her experiments in theoretical physics that paved the way for numerous developments in the telecommunication space. This included the touch-tone telephone, the portable fax, caller ID, call waiting and the fiber-optic cable.

Due to Covid-19, healthcare has had to lean on telecommunications much more. For example, in the world of CRO, many clinical trials have gone virtual (which you can learn more about here). Telehealth is also important to help diagnose patients from their homes. If it wasn’t for Mr Hawkins and Dr Jackson, would telehealth or virtual trials be possible today? Maybe not.

Fast forward to the 21st century and ask yourself: did you know any of these people before this article? I didn’t. And that’s not a slight on us, but the society and education systems that we have been brought-up in. Many inspirational black people have been forgotten.

This has impacted our industries and workforces, with diversity understood for its positive influences but rarely seen at the top-end of company hierarchies. It took until as late as 2011, for Kenneth Frazier, JD to make it as the first black man to lead a major pharmaceutical company, Merck.

Kenneth Frazier, JD, first black man to lead a major pharmaceutical company.

Again, this is not a slight on us. It’s rather an observation of how our history has shaped today’s reality. And that’s why it’s so important to embrace Black History Month, so we can build a better future.

This year, people are listening and learning. I feel that we are starting to turn a corner. In future decades, we will reap the rewards of our actions. That’s why science’s black history is important now.

I'm passionate about this topic and think it needs to be talked about, so I invite you to share your experiences in the life science sector with me. Email me at Matt.Barrors@lifesci-cm.com

You can find more content that's specific to the CRO and biotech space via my consultant page.

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Matthew Barrows

Matthew Barrows is a Principal Consultant and has been featured on multiple industry news sites discussing the latest trends in the CRO market. As well as commentating on the latest developments in the space, he’s fascinated about the reasons why pharma companies choose particular CROs.


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