Slavery & Public Health: Past, Present, and Future – a Symposium at HSPH

Conference Information

On May 4th the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health hosted the Slavery & Public Health: Past, Present, and Future Symposium. Bringing the University-led conversation about its past and present connections to slavery and its legacy to our campus and community, the symposium will built upon the Radcliffe Institute’s Universities and Slavery: Bound by History conference. The dynamic panel of presenters focused on the past and present public health implications of slavery and discussed how this history continues to shape our campus, community, and work.

In conjunction with the symposium, an art installation titled Ghost Portraits was unveiled.  The United States’ legacy of slavery and structural racism has minimized, and in some cases buried, the contributions to public health and medicine from minority populations, including those once legally enslaved in this country: African Americans and Native Americans. As testimony to the enduring impact of slavery, these “ghost portraits” portray significant African Americans and Native Americans in public health history. This installation is a first-step in our efforts to cultivate a more inclusive physical environment.

Interested in joining the task force? Please send an email to


Panel 1:

Evelynn Hammonds





Rana Hogarth





Nancy Krieger






Reginald Tucker-Seeley (Moderator)






Panel 2:

Rhea Boyd





Elizabeth Solomon






Meredith Rosenthal






Ra’Shaun Nalls (Moderator)





Countway Library Digital Exhibit

“This Abominable Traffic”: Physicians on Slavery
As Harvard University and other American educational institutions grapple with their historic ties to slavery and its legacy, this display, drawn from the rare book and manuscript collections of the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine highlights some of the medical aspects of slavery and racism.  Physicians of the 18th and 19th centuries were some of the most well-travelled individuals of their day and had many opportunities to witness slavery in the West Indies and United States.  Their travel narratives provide firsthand accounts of the experiences of slaves, their medical care, and treatment by owners and slaveholders.

This Abominable Traffic : Physicians on Slavery is an online exhibit curated by Jack Eckert for the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. The online exhibit was created in OnView in April 2017.

Ghost Portraits


The United States’ legacy of slavery and structural racism has minimized, and in some cases buried, the contributions to public health and medicine from minority populations, including those once legally enslaved in this country: African Americans and Native Americans.
As testimony to the enduring impact of slavery, these “ghost portraits” portray significant African Americans and Native Americans in public health history.
Engaging in a wordless dialogue with the portraits of white men that surround them, they demand to be acknowledged, and to be seen.

Paul B. Cornely

(1906-2002) Dr. Paul Cornely was the first African American elected president of the American Public Health Association. He was Medical Director of Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital, and a civil rights leader who made it his mission to desegregate the country’s health care facilities. In 1988, the University of Michigan School of Public Health – Cornely’s alma mater – created a postdoctoral program in his name, for minority scholars “who are conducting research on the clarification, reduction, and elimination of racial and ethnic health disparities.”

(photo courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine)


Georgia Rooks Dwelle

(1884–1977) Dr. Georgia Rooks Dwell, daughter of a former slave, was the first alumna of Spelman College to attend medical school.

In 1920, she opened the Dwelle Infirmary in Atlanta, Georgia, which was the state’s first general hospital for African Americans, and its first obstetrical hospital for African American women. A strong believer in “a life of Service,” Dr. Dwelle established Georgia’s first all-black clinic for venereal disease, as well as its first “Mother’s Club” for African American women.

(photo courtesy of the Spelman College Archives)


Moses Alfred Haynes

(1921–2016) Dr. M. Alfred Haynes was a pioneer in addressing disparities in health status, access to care and professional health education opportunities for underrepresented minorities and the poor. He served as a medical officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, and was one of the first African American faculty members at Johns Hopkins. After the Watts Riots in 1965, Dr. Haynes helped to establish the Charles Drew Postgraduate Medical School to increase training in the healthcare professions in Watts and South Los Angeles, eventually serving as its Dean and Professor Emeritus.

(photo provided by the Charles R. Drew University Health Services Library Archive)


Gertrude Teixeira Hunter

(1926–2006) Dr. Gertrude Hunter was national director of health services for Project Head Start. In 1965, she helped implement the first national comprehensive health program to immunize, offer preventive medical and dental care, and treat undiagnosed health conditions in preschool children. Dr, Hunter served on the faculty of the Howard University College of Medicine as an instructor in the Department of Microbiology and as assistant professor in the department

of physiology. Retiring after 22 years at Howard, she went on to create the Human Services Educational and Research Institute (HUSER),

a private, non-profit organization that studies, designs, evaluates, and advocates for policies and programs to address the health needs of underserved and low-income people of color.

(photo courtesy of the Howard University College of Medicine Archives)


Flemmie Pansy Kittrell

(1904–1980) Dr. Flemmie Kittrell was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in nutrition. At Howard University in the 1940s, Dr. Kittrell broadened the curriculum for home economics to include child development. She traveled internationally to improve nutrition, reporting on “hidden hunger” in Liberia, and working to improve nutrition in India, Japan, Central Africa, Russia, and elsewhere. Because of her efforts, Howard University became recognized as an international leader in research on child development and nutrition. In the 1960s, Dr. Kittrell was instrumental in helping to create the Head Start program.

(photo by Camera Press Ltd, London)


Susan La Flesche Picotte

(1865–1915) Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, an Omaha Indian born in Nebraska, was the first Native American physician. Although few Victorian-era medical school accepted women as students, La Flesche attended the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1889 as valedictorian. She returned to the Omaha reservation in 1889 as a physician at the government boarding school on the reservation, where she taught students about how hygiene could keep them healthy. She also cared for members of the community at large, making house calls across the reservation to treat tuberculosis, cholera, and dysentery. Even after her marriage to Henry Picotte and the birth of two children, La Flesche Picotte continued her work as a physician and public health advocate.

(photo courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society)


Lillie Rosa Minoka-Hill

(1876–1952) Dr. Lillie Rosa Minoka, daughter of a Mohawk mother and a Quaker physician father, became the second Native American physician, graduating from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania a decade after Susan La Flesche Picotte. After marrying Charles Hill, an Oneida farmer, she moved to the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin, where she practiced medicine under difficult conditions. Dr. Minoka-Hill earned the trust of the community, tending to patients from

her “kitchen clinic” while raising six children alone after her husband’s sudden death from appendicitis. She was awarded many professional honors in her lifetime, and the Oneida community adopted her by giving her the name “You-da-gent,” or “she who serves.”

(photo courtesy of the Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia)


Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail

(1903–1981) In 1927, Susie Walking Bear, daughter of an Oglala Sioux mother and a Crow father, became the first Crow registered nurse—and one of the first Native American nurses—in the United States. After marrying Thomas Yellowtail, she served on the Crow reservation in Montana at the Indian Health Services Hospital. Yellowtail was a respected

consultant for Indian Health Services, traveling the country to document lack of sanitation and access to health care, language barriers, and other critical issues. In 1962, she was awarded the President’s Award for Outstanding Nursing by President John F. Kennedy. Susie Yellowtail founded the first professional association of Native American nurses, and in 1978 was honored by the American Indian Nurses Association as the “Grandmother of American Indian Nurses.”

(photo courtesy of the Montana Historical Society)


References, Resources, and Recommended Readings

A History of Race and Racism in America, in 24 Chapters
by Ibram X. Kendi
During our investigation to find materials that would allow for further research into the historical impact of slavery in the United States, this selection from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was found. The list provides a broad historical sweep and includes literature related to health outcomes and biology.

Medicalizing Blackness in Atlantic, Early National, and Antebellum America
by Rana A. Hogarth
“Slavery & Public Health: Past, Present, and Future” Symposium at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; May 4, 2017

The long reach of Jim Crow: embodying history & the people’s health — the stories bodies tell
by Nancy Krieger
Invited presentation for “Slavery & Public Health: Past, Present, and Future” – A Symposium at HSPH. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, May 4, 2017.

Slavery, Health, and Medicine
Stephen C. Kenny
15 January, 2015
Oxford Bibliographies 

Video Recording

Click here to watch Panel I

Click here to watch Panel II