Myrtle Potter

Chief Executive Officer, Sumitovant

A Legacy of Impact

Celebrating African American contributions in medicine

As we at Sumitovant celebrate Black History Month, we are reminded of the progress society has made over the past decades when it comes to inclusion, diversity, and equity. But, at the same time, we are saddened and challenged by the systemic racism that still exists in the U.S. and many other countries across the globe as well as the outsized negative impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Black community. We also know that one celebratory month per year cannot possibly do justice to the important impact African Americans have had on U.S. culture, business, politics, education, and medical research, among others. In this article, we’d like to highlight just a few Black researchers, physicians, and everyday people who have helped medicine advance to the stage where it is now. Bear in mind that some, like Henrietta Lacks, were not even aware of, or agreed to, their contributions, which is a stark reminder that the role of Black Americans in medicine and research has not always been a moral success story.

Inarguably, the HeLa cell line is one of the most important cell lines in medical research. Originally taken from a young African American woman named Henrietta Lacks (hence the term “HeLa”), who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951, this immortalized human cell line is still in use in laboratories across the globe. Even though the cells were taken from Lacks and used in research without her consent, the impact they have had is immeasurable. Numerous biological processes have been explored using those cells and a number of treatments and cures for various diseases were developed based on research done on the HeLa cell line. Needless to say, this does not justify taking cells from anyone without consent (which was common in the 1950s), but it would be wrong to highlight African Americans in medical research without mentioning Henriette Lacks and the outsized impact her cells have had on research.

Born just a few years before Henrietta Lacks’ passing, Dr. Herbert W. Nickens spent his life advocating for diversity and inclusion in medicine. After receiving dual M.D./M.A. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, he was awarded the University’s History of Medicine Prize. Nickens was a passionate and tireless fighter for underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in medicine and scientific research. His work directly led to the creation of various programs and initiatives to advance the career development of underrepresented minorities in the field. Today, the Association of American Medical Colleges awards the Herbert W. Nickens Award to individuals who make outstanding contributions to promoting justice in medical education and healthcare equity in the U.S., thereby keeping his legacy alive.

Bridging medicine and politics is trailblazer Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who served as the first Black Surgeon General of the United States under President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s. Born to a poor family of farmers in Arkansas in the 1930s, Elders joined the U.S. Army before getting her M.D. from the University of Arkansas Medical School and an M.S. degree in biochemistry. Never one to hide her views, Elders was forced to resign as Surgeon General in 1994 after making controversial remarks about contraception and drug policy. While Elders was the first Black Surgeon General, six of the 13 people who followed her in that role were also people of color. Most recently, Dr. Jerome Adams as Surgeon General publicly addressed the increased risks African Americans face from Covid-19.

As the world is fighting the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus are our best hope to collectively rein in the pandemic and to enable us to return to our normal lives of meeting family and friends, traveling, and finally being back at work in a meeting room with our colleagues. At the forefront of vaccine development in the U.S. is a viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC) named Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D. There, Dr. Corbett is leading the VCR’s coronavirus team and her work has helped advance one of the novel mRNA vaccines that has been approved by the FDA and regulatory agencies across the world. Corbett is also an outspoken advocate for vaccination among Black Americans who may be hesitant to get vaccinated as polls have shown suspicion within the community toward the accelerated timeline of the vaccines’ safety studies.

This is a small snapshot of a few key Black figures in medical history and there are hundreds, if not thousands, more who have contributed over the past decades. I expect that, if I pen an article like this again in a few years, the list of Black researchers, scientists and doctors will have grown. 

At Sumitovant, we are fully committed to diversity, inclusion, and equity. To us, diversity, inclusion, and equity are not “nice to haves,” they are “must haves.” They are the bedrock of our company values and are integral to our success. We tap into the brightest and widest points of view because this strategy makes our company smarter and our products better. As medicine and healthcare become more complex, our company leadership and employees will continue to reflect our belief in the power of diverse voices “in the room” and “at the table.” Sumitovant celebrates our diversity, and we hope you join us in lending your voice to diversity, inclusion, and equity, not just during Black History Month, but each day of the year.

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