Black History Month
Humberside LMC is celebrating Black History Month in October 2021 by sharing stories celebrating the incredible richness and diversity of Black and Brown heritage in the UK.
Black History Month originated in the USA and was first celebrated in the UK in 1987. People from African and Caribbean backgrounds have been a fundamental part of British history for centuries, but many people believe this contribution to society is often overlooked, ignored or distorted. Black History Month gives everyone the opportunity to share, celebrate and understand the impact of black heritage and culture.
Inspired by Black Lives Matter, Black History Month UK is launching a new campaign for Black History Month 2021 called ‘Proud To Be’. The campaign will encourage Black and Brown people to share what they are proud to be – as part of a month long celebration of the incredible richness and diversity of Black and Brown heritage in the UK.
Throughout October we'll be publishing stories on this page illustrating the great contributions made to medicine by people of Black and Brown heritage, and also highlighting important medical stories and issues which many people won't be aware of.
Black History Month Stories
Black British History: Healthcare Heroes
There are many inspiring pioneers from BAME communities who have often gone unrecognised. These are just a few of them:
- Mary Seacole - a British-Jamaican Nurse in the 1800s. During the Crimean War, Mary requested to be sent as an army nurse to care for the injured soldiers, but she was refused. Determined, she decided to go on her own, funding her trip herself and establishing the British Hotel. There, she cared for the sick, injured, and recovering soldiers, often visiting the battlefield to care for the wounded there. It was not until the 21st Century that Britain began to recognise her achievements properly, and in 2016, a memorial statue of Seacole was erected in London. Most importantly, her story is now part of the National Curriculum.
- Africanus Horton - after qualifying in medicine, Horton was commissioned back to West Africa as a surgeon in the British Army. During this time he developed theories that connected human health with topography (the study of anatomy based on regions of the body and the structures within that region). His theories led to a distinguished reputation within medical communities. He also championed what he called “African Nationality” and campaigned for self-government for the West African colonies.
- Annie Brewster - born in Saint Vincetn in 1858, Brewster worked as a nurse at the London Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital), in Whitechapel for twenty years. She was known as ‘Nurse Ophthalmic’ due to her skill in treating patients with eye conditions, and she later became the nurse in charge of the Ophthalmic Wards.
The Tuskegee Study
Starting in 1932, 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama in the USA were enlisted to take part in a scientific experiment on syphilis. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” was conducted by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) and involved blood tests, x-rays, spinal taps and autopsies of the subjects.
The goal was to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis” in black populations. But the subjects were unaware of this and were simply told they were receiving treatment for bad blood. Actually, they received no treatment at all. Even after penicillin was discovered as a safe and reliable cure for syphilis, the majority of men did not receive it.
The scandal was not fully exposed until 1972. A class action lawsuit resulted in a settlement of $10 million. It’s estimated that the life expectancy of black men fell by up to 1.4 years when the study’s details came to light. Many also blame the study for impacting the willingness of black individuals to willingly participate in medical research today.
The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks (1920 – 1951) was an African-American woman who died aged 31 of an aggressive cervical cancer. Her cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalized cell line reproduces indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data.
Lacks was unwittingly the source of these cells from a tumor biopsied during treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. These cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey who created the cell line known as HeLa, which is still used for medical research. As was the practice at the time, no consent was required to culture the cells obtained from her treatment. Neither she nor her family were compensated for their extraction or use.
The Lacks family was not made aware of the line's existence until 1975. With knowledge of the cell line's genetic provenance becoming public, its use for medical research and for commercial purposes continues to raise concerns about privacy and patients' rights. As Henrietta's grandson Alfred Lacks Carter has said, “They were taken in a bad way but they are doing good for the world.”
Unacceptable Disparity in Maternal Deaths Because of Ethnicity
Black women are four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth, says the seventh annual report from MBRRACE-UK (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries). Women from Asian ethnic backgrounds face a twofold risk, and women living in the most deprived areas of the UK are almost three times more likely to die than those in the most affluent areas.
The analysis of maternal deaths in the UK, issued by Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, says that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have worsened the disparities they have highlighted.
The report includes surveillance data on women in the UK who died during pregnancy or up to one year afterwards in 2016-18 and details the lessons for maternity that can be learnt care from confidential inquiries.