April 08, 2022
By Tiffany Whitfield
COVID-19 has brought the state of public health to the fore and highlighted disparities in health care access and outcomes. These disparities, however, are not new and have been revealed throughout history by other infectious diseases, according to Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, who was a 2022 speaker for the Daniel E. and Helen N. Sonenshine, organized by Old Dominion University College of Science and the Department of Biological Sciences.
Gamble, an internationally renowned physician, scholar, and activist, is a University Professor of Medical Humanities, Professor of Health Policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, and Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. She specializes in the history of American medicine, racial and ethnic disparities in health and health care, public health ethics, and bioethics.
Parallels in pandemics from 1918 to today
On March 31, Gamble delivered two in-depth lectures to students, faculty, and the public exploring health inequities during two epidemics and revealing the life and breakthroughs of an African-American female doctor and activist amid the 1900s.
His first lecture, “Exposing Pre-Existing Social Conditions: African Americans, the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, and COVID-19,” focused on exploring the impact of African Americans during the previous pandemic, provides historical context for understand the “racial dimensions of the contemporary epidemic”. The COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on African Americans.”
Gamble gave examples of how the outbreaks “continue to lay bare racial and social inequalities in the United States.” During the 1918 flu epidemic, African Americans did not receive equal treatment in hospitals due to Jim Crow policies. Patients and victims of black flu received care and were buried in separate facilities. White scientists and physicians “believed the theories that African Americans were biologically, physiologically, and morally inferior to whites.”
“The hospital wasn’t the only black facility in Baltimore, Maryland overwhelmed by the flu pandemic,” Gamble said. “At Mount Auburn Cemetery, the largest black cemetery, the bodies arrived so quickly that the gravediggers could not keep up, and by the end of October the coffins of more than 150 dead African Americans had remained unburied, some for three weeks.”
The crisis was resolved after the US military tasked about 370 black soldiers to bury the dead in a mass grave. “These events in Baltimore underscore that the epidemic itself exposed the medical and political inequalities that African Americans faced, as seen in Baltimore but repeated across the country,” said Gamble. “The color line was so entrenched that African Americans took primary responsibility for providing care to members of the race affected by the influenza epidemic.”
Additionally, Gamble shared newspaper clippings and excerpts from books and articles from African-American leaders in Philadelphia and Richmond who pooled their resources to provide adequate care to their communities.
“African Americans lacked political and economic power and lived in the least desirable, most disease-ridden neighborhood,” Gamble said. “But despite their hardships, African Americans have established separate hospitals and care facilities to care for themselves.
“Just as the flu revealed racial inequities in our society in 1918, COVID-19 does today. Statistics show that a disproportionate number of African Americans are sick and dying from the coronavirus and very many black families are in mourning.”
She noted that a recent study by the Black Coalition Against COVID found that “COVID-19 severity among black Americans was a predicted outcome of structural and societal realities and not differences in genetic predispositions.”
“Systemic changes must address the separate and unequal health care system that has been exposed by COVID-19,” Gamble said.
Pioneer of racial justice in medicine
Gamble gave a second lecture on the life and career of Dr. Virginia M. Alexander, a pioneer in medicine, public health research, anti-racism activism and religion. Gamble writes a biography about her.
“I want to build this trailblazer to strip away the substance and character of racist theories and show her as a complex human being with strengths, triumphs and accomplishments,” Gamble said.
She took the Lê Planetarium audience inside the new Chemistry Building on a journey through the different phases of Alexander’s life and career, starting with her time as a student at the University of Pennsylvania and Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Each phase of her professional career has encountered obstacles and barriers, but she has proven resilient.
“After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in just three years, Virginia left for Kansas City in 1925 to complete her hospital internship because no Philadelphia hospital would accept her as an intern because of her race” , said Gamble.
After completing her internship in the Midwest, Alexander returned to the East Coast and converted part of her home in Brewerytown (north Philadelphia) into a six-bed clinic called Aspiranto Health Home.
Alexander struggled to find equal treatment for his patients in hospitals, but insisted on treating both African American and white patients in the late 1930s and 1940s.
Faith was essential for Alexander. When she was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania in 1917, she attended her first Quaker meeting. Many of Alexander’s white patients were members of the Society of Friends (Quakers).
“She had close friends at the monthly Race and Arch Street (Quaker) meetings, and she joined the Fireside Club, an interracial group of white and African-American friends dedicated to interracial understanding,” Gamble said.
Alexander became the first African American named to the Race Relations Committee of the Philadelphia annual meeting. As part of her efforts with this committee, she worked to incorporate the Philadelphia Hospital. After some time, Alexander asked to become a member of the Germantown Friends monthly meeting.
“Despite his already respected status in the Quaker community, Friends were once again divided in their support for his membership,” Gamble said. “In 1931, more than a year after applying (and 14 years after her first Quaker meeting), she was finally approved for membership and became the only African-American (Quaker) member of the monthly Friends of Germantown.”
Over the years, Alexander has fought to break down systemic barriers in the medical profession and advocated on behalf of her black patients. She has conducted research on social, economic, and health issues in North Philadelphia, yielding startling results on health disparities affecting black patients, including high infant mortality rates and higher death rates for tuberculosis. In 1936 Alexander became the first black student to attend the Yale School of Public Health.
Alexander paved the way for other young doctors and his colleague, Dr. Helen Dickens, who mentors Gamble.
Gamble is the author of several acclaimed publications on the history of race and racism in American medicine and bioethics, is a Fellow of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and is a Fellow of the Hastings Center. She chaired the committee that led a successful campaign to obtain an apology in 1997 from President Clinton for the United States Public Health Syphilis Study in Tuskegee.
The Daniel E. and Helen N. Sonenshine Infectious Disease Lecture Series was created so that ODU students could learn, listen to, and meet expert scientists in the hope that they would enter or contribute to the field of diseases infectious.
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