For centuries, Black people have been integral to the advancement of immunology and immunotherapy. However, due to systemic barriers, many of their achievements and contributions have been overlooked by history and not given their just due. This Black History Month, we highlight a few of these individuals who have contributed to our understanding of the science of the immune system—and how it can be used to protect against diseases, including cancer.
Onesimus (late 1600s–1700s)
Onesimus, whose birth name is unknown, played a vital role in the mitigation of a smallpox (variola virus) outbreak in the British colony of Massachusetts. He instructed others in a method commonly used in Africa to reduce the prevalence of the disease, which killed up to 30 percent of those infected and seriously scarred many survivors.
Known as variolation, the method involved rubbing pus from an infected individual’s sore into a healthy person’s open wound or, later, via scratching pus into the skin or inhaling it through the nose. Pus results primarily from the accumulation of immune cells converging on infection sites. Like a vaccine, pus containing weak or killed virus or viral particles alerted the immune system without causing serious infection in healthy individuals, protecting them against actual smallpox infection in the future.
As an enslaved West African, the medical community rebuffed his approach due to racial and religious bias. However, during the deadly smallpox outbreak of 1721, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, one of the only—if not the only—doctor willing to try Onesimus’ method, tested the technique on more than 200 colonists. The method appeared to reduce their risk of death from smallpox by more than 80 percent. Onesimus’ knowledge not only saved countless lives in Boston, but also later contributed to the development of vaccines that culminated in the worldwide eradication of smallpox in 1980.
William Augustus Hinton, M.D. (1883–1959)
In 1927, Dr. Hinton—a son of former enslaved people—created a blood test to diagnose syphilis, a disease of bacterial origin. This detection method, commonly referred to as the “Hinton method,” was more accurate than the previous test and endorsed by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1934. (While Dr. Hinton’s test became the diagnostic standard, 600 impoverished African-American sharecroppers were never informed of their syphilis diagnosis and left untreated in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study between 1932-1972.) In addition to his medical breakthrough, Dr. Hinton became the first African American to publish a medical textbook (Syphilis and Its Treatment) in 1936, and the first African-American professor at Harvard University, where he taught bacteriology and immunology.
Jane Cooke Wright, M.D. (1919–2013)
Dr. Wright, the daughter of Louis Tompkins Wright, one of the first African-American graduates from Harvard Medical School, was an oncologist who pioneered methods to evaluate cancer treatments using tumor biopsies. This early form of precision medicine identified new ways to administer chemotherapy and resulted in her appointment to the President’s Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. She was also one of the seven physicians to establish the American Society for Clinical Oncology to support clinical research and systemic study of cancer treatments. Dr. Wright became the first female African-American associate dean of a nationally recognized institution three years later, earning the honor of highest ranking African-American woman at a U.S. medical school. Her distinguished career culminated in 1971, when she became the first female president of the New York Cancer Society.
Ellamae Simmons, M.D. (1918–2019)
Dr. Simmons was one of the first eight African-American nurses selected to integrate the U.S. Army before going on to receive a Doctorate of Medicine (M.D.). Her trailblazing nature continued as she became the first female African American to live in the dorms of The Ohio State University, the first female African-American physician to join Kaiser Foundation Hospital, and the first female African American to specialize in asthma, allergy, and immunology. Dr. Simmons would go on to found the Kaiser African American Professional Association (KAAPA) with the goal of fostering inclusive environments to help individuals reach their potential.
Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951)
Though not a clinician or scientist, Ms. Lacks’ contribution to the field of immunology and cancer research is equally important. Diagnosed with cervical cancer at The John Hopkins Hospital in 1951, her biopsy would end up changing the course of cancer research. Ms. Lacks’ tumor cells—dubbed “HeLa” cells—had remarkable survival capabilities and would double in number almost every day. With them, scientists could study the impact of drugs, viruses, radiation, and other treatments on cancer cells without needing to test them directly on cancer patients. Her cells also played a vital role in the development of the vaccine against polio. Ms. Lacks’ cells continue to survive and multiply, and continue to enable important discoveries in cancer, infectious diseases, and immunology.
It is important to note that the collection and continued use of HeLa cells is surrounded by controversy when viewed from the modern era. At the time of her biopsy, requirements to obtain patient consent for the collection and use of samples in research did not exist. It was common for John Hopkins and other healthcare organizations to collect extra patient samples for research purposes regardless of their race or socio-economic status. Nonetheless, this and other potentially controversial patient-provider interactions led to the creation of the Common Rule in 1981, a set of regulations and practices designed to protect human subjects in federally funded research. In recent years, the Common Rule has been revised to provide clearer consent to patients and stronger protections of their rights. Although Henrietta Lacks was not able to benefit from the protection of this regulation at the time of her treatment, her legacy has undoubtedly changed the field of medicine and contributed to the advancement of patient rights and medical empowerment.
Bertram Fraser-Reid, Ph.D. (1934–2020)
Dr. Fraser-Reid was a Jamaican-born synthetic organic chemist who researched carbohydrate-synthesized products. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship under Nobel Laureate Sir Derek Barton, he studied the synthesis of chiral natural products from carbohydrates and taught chemistry at both the University of Maryland and at Duke University. Throughout this time, he received multiple awards and recognitions, including being named the North Carolina Chemist of the Year in 1995 by the American Institute of Chemistry. Dr. Fraser-Reid went on to found the Natural Products and Glycotechnology Research Institute where he oversaw the development of carbohydrate-based vaccines for malaria and tuberculosis. It is reported, though not confirmed, that he was nominated for the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on oligosaccharides and immune responses.
Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, Ph.D. (1986–Present)
Dr. Corbett is an African-American immunologist with a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology who currently works at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). She played a vital role in the creation and testing of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine: she helped design the product, led preclinical studies, and developed testing arrays. Highlighting her contributions and accomplishments, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said “… her work will have a substantial impact on ending the worst respiratory-disease pandemic in more than 100 years.” Dr. Corbett’s immunology work extends beyond the laboratory as she is heavily involved in conducting outreach to reduce vaccine skepticism in Black communities.