February is Black History Month, a time to honor the cultural, intellectual, and historical influences of the Black community. While there are countless people to celebrate this month (and all year long!), we are spotlighting four figures whose vision, sacrifice, and expertise have given way to progress in medicine and disability justice. How many of these icons have you heard of before?
Dr. Ellamae Simmons, the first Black woman physician to specialize in asthma, allergy, and immunology. Dr. Simmons was born in 1918 in Mount Vernon, Ohio. After earning her medical degree from Howard University, Dr. Simmons became the first Black woman to join the staff at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in San Francisco.
Although she is best known for her outstanding medical career, Dr. Simmons is also celebrated for her activism. A leader in her local Real Estate Trust, she helped to integrate neighborhoods with a history of denying home ownership to people of color. Her work in housing equality has helped create opportunity for generations of people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Simmons was adamant that her vision and talents would never be minimized by the discrimination that she faced as a Black woman in medicine. Her persistence and courage opened up numerous doors for other Black physicians, and her legacy continues to inspire. In 2016, Dr. Ellamae Simmons wrote a book about her life, “Overcome: My Life In Pursuit of A Dream.”
Brad Lomax, a civil rights activist who helped organize a groundbreaking movement for disability justice. Brad Lomax was born in Philadelphia in 1950. While in college, he discovered that he had multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that causes nerve degeneration. The progression of his disease eventually required Lomax to use a wheelchair. This exposed Lomax to the plight of the disability community: people with disabilities were routinely denied access to education, jobs, housing, and numerous other opportunities.
Lomax eventually moved to Oakland, CA, where his connections with the Black Panther Party and local disability activists birthed a relationship between both groups. Due to his efforts, assisting the disabled community became central to the work of East Oakland’s Black Panthers.
In 1977, disability activists staged a sit-in to demand regulations for section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Up to that point, the Rehabilitation Act had fallen short of its promise to establish rights for people with disabilities because no regulations existed to protect them against discrimination. For the disability community, a sit-in would present its own distinct set of challenges – but their alliance with the Black Panthers proved essential to its success. For nearly a month, the Black Panthers delivered hot meals to activists at the San Francisco federal building. This ensured that the protestors could stay put, stay nourished, and stay focused. Meal distribution was a type of community care that the Black Panthers were already well-versed in. Between the 1960’s and ‘70s, the Black Panther Party fed thousands of school children through their free lunch program.
On April 28, 1977, Lomax and his associates succeeded: the 504 regulations were signed. This was a turning point in the ongoing fight for disability justice. Section 504 would eventually lay the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Echoes of the 1960’s civil rights movement prevailed within the 504 Sit-In. The struggle for Black liberation set the stage for this moment in disability justice: a reminder that liberation is a collective and collaborative act. 504 activist Kitty Cone recalls:
“At every moment, we felt ourselves the descendants of the civil rights movement of the ’60s. We learned about sit-ins from the civil rights movement, we sang freedom songs to keep up morale, and consciously show the connection between the two movements. We always drew the parallels.”
In 2020, the New York Times published an obituary for Lomax as part of a series to recognize monumental folks that the publication had overlooked at the time of their deaths.
Henrietta Lacks, made innumerable contributions to medical and pharmaceutical research. Henrietta Lacks was born on a Virginian farm in 1920. She was a cherished mother and wife to her large family. In 1951, while she was being treated for cervical cancer, some of Lacks’ cells were taken without her knowledge and consent. Researchers found that the cells had a rare ability to survive laboratory conditions and to be grown indefinitely. Her cell line became known as HeLa cells. Lacks passed away without ever knowing that her cells would change the world many times over. The HeLa cell line has been used in research on cancer, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and much more. In vitro fertilization and the polio vaccine were both developed using HeLa cells.
It wasn’t until 25 years after her death that Lacks would be credited for the HeLa cell line. Her cells were the first ever to be bought and sold, which has since generated billions of dollars in profits for laboratories and pharmaceutical companies. Until recently, Lacks’ family was denied financial gain or agency over her cells. In 2013, two family members were appointed to a committee that controls access to Lacks’ genome. A research institute finally paid reparations to her descendants just last year. Henrietta Lacks’ family is now dedicated to preserving the legacy of who she was as a person. To learn more about her, check out the Henrietta Lacks Foundation and #HeLa100.
Black history is unfolding every day! Scientists at Howard University continue to break ground in autoimmune disease research. Howard University is a Historically Black College (HBCU) with a score of illustrious grads, including Kamala Harris, Chadwick Boseman, and Toni Morrison. Their rheumatology program specializes in studying and treating rheumatic diseases such as Lupus, Scleroderma, and more. Additionally, Howard researchers are leading the way in type 1 diabetes research, investigating immune cells with the goal of developing new treatments for the inflammatory response involved in t1d.
A key piece of their work involves the Ethnic Minority Rheumatoid Arthritis Consortium (EMRAC). This database contains information on over 1,400 patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Such resources are essential to studying autoimmune disease in a way that emphasizes their impact on communities of color, including the following:
While genetics are likely one factor, it is also imperative for researchers and care providers to confront the social conditions that drive these types of statistics. People of color tend to experience poorer health outcomes due to barriers that include lack of access to specialists, insurance status, inability to pay for care, travel burdens, language barriers, racial trauma experienced in medical settings, and more.
We are indebted to these and many more outstanding Black figures for their contributions to medicine and activism. As we look towards the future: to new innovations, greater achievements, and to co-creating a better world- we celebrate these and countless other incredible Black stories of the past and present.
Cushing, L. (2017, February 3). Ellamae Simmons – Trailblazing African American physician. Kaiser Permanente.
(2019, May 17). Ellamae Simmons Obituary. San Francisco Chronicle.
Witze, A. (2020, October 29). Wealthy funder pays reparations for use of hela cells. Nature.
Kolaczkowski, L. (2016, December 16). “Henrietta Lacks’ Legacy of Informed Consent.” Multiple Sclerosis News Today.
Dineen, K. (2016, August 1). Women in Science: Remembering Henrietta Lacks. The Jackson Laboratory.
Zielinski, S. (2010, January 22). Henrietta Lacks’ Immortal Cells. Smithsonian Magazine.
(2020). Henrietta Lacks: science must right a historical wrong. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02494-z
Cone, K. (2020, July 26). Short history of the 504 sit in. Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.
Connelly, E. (2020, July 8). Overlooked no MORE: Brad Lomax, a bridge between civil rights movements. The New York Times.
Lipscomb Laboratory – Howard University. Howard University.
Division of Rheumatology. Howard University.
Lim, S., Helmick, G., Bao, G., Hootman, J., Bayakly, R. Gordon, C., Drenkard, C. (2019, May 10). Racial Disparities in Mortality Associated with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus – Fulton and Dekalb Counties, Georgia, 2002-2016. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6818a4
Volkmann, E., Steen, V., Li, N., Roth, M., Clements, P., Furst, D., Assassi, S., Khanna, D., Kim, G., Goldin, J., et al. (2020, December 5). Racial Disparities in Systemic Sclerosis: Short- and Long-Term Outcomes Among African American Participants of SLS 1 and 11. American College of Rheumatology. https://doi.org/10.1002/acr2.11206
Greenberg, J., Spruill, T., Shan, Y., Yazici, Y., Ogedegbe, G., Harrold, L., et al. (2013, December 1). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Disease Activity in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis. The American Journal of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2013.09.002