It was 94 years ago that Dr. Carter Woodson, a Harvard-educated African American known as the “Father of Black History,” created the precursor to today’s Black History Month.
Begun in February 1926, what was then known as Negro History Week went on to celebrate heroic black figures that included inventors, entertainers, artists, and professionals — individuals including Dr. James McCune Smith, who in 1837 became the first African American to hold a medical degree in the United States, and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who in 1893 performed the first American open-heart surgery.
“Black History Month gives us a chance to reflect on what our ancestors accomplished. It is very important to honor them. We are in many ways living out our ancestors’ dreams,” said Lauren Hollifield, a member of the inaugural class of the UNLV School of Medicine. She met recently with other students and faculty at the school’s Shadow Lane campus to celebrate African American contributions to America in general and to medicine in particular.
To commemorate the month, students Jabre Millon and Sami Mesgun collaborated on an essay that reads in part: “The importance of celebrating Black History Month and its relevance today cannot be overstated. When we observe Black History Month — just like when we observe other heritage months throughout the year — Americans of all races are allowed the chance to learn about a past and a people which they may have little awareness of…. Celebrating Black History Month reminds us all that black history is American history.”
In their essay, Millon and Mesgun pointed out the remarkable drive it took for James McCune Smith to become a physician: “Smith was born in New York in 1817 to a woman who was formerly a slave. He excelled academically in his childhood which led him to apply to both Columbia University and Geneva Medical College. He was denied from both on the grounds of racial discrimination. Smith instead attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland. When he returned to New York, he was...the first African American to hold a medical degree. Smith provided medical care for both African American and white patients. He opened a night school for teaching children as well as the first black-owned and operated pharmacy in the U.S.”
At the history month gathering was UNLV Medicine’s Dr. Charles St. Hill, one of only three fellowship-trained surgical oncologists in Nevada. In 2018 a Las Vegas Review-Journal story told of how his surgical prowess helped a cancer patient. As Black History Month unfolds, he said he hopes his story inspires other minority youths to go into medicine. “That’s why Black History Month remains important,” he said. “If the history revealed in this month can inspire others to go into fields they might not otherwise attempt, it’s worthwhile.”
Another role model for UNLV students is Dr. Joseph Thornton, an associate professor at the medical school. He was not just the first African American fellowship-trained colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada, he was the first fellowship-trained colorectal surgeon to practice in Nevada period. Dr. Beverly Neyland, a professor of pediatrics, was the first African American pediatrician in the state. Both graduated from Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, the first medical school for African Americans in the South.
As they shared part of their histories with the students, it was obvious that it was an enjoyable teaching moment. “It keeps me young,” laughed Thornton. “I feel like I’m in my 40s.”
Thornton, who arrived in Nevada shortly after Neyland in 1978, when he says only six African American physicians practiced in the state, remembers an occasion when he visited with Dr. Charles West, the state’s first African American physician, about a matter outside of medicine: “When black entertainers here weren’t able to stay in the hotels, Dr. West found them a place to stay,” Thornton said.
To date, Thornton estimates he’s done 10,000 colon resections to treat and prevent diseases and conditions such as colon cancer.
In addition to maintaining a private practice, Neyland has been chief of pediatrics at both Sunrise and UMC, a member of the admissions committee at the UNR Medical School, and a member of the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners. She said that all too often the contributions of African Americans don’t receive the credit they deserve. “We’ve been marginalized,” she said. Neyland added she enjoys going to high schools and churches to talk to young people about careers in medicine. “We need to be better at mentoring.”
It’s clear UNLV School of Medicine students won’t let what Thornton and Neyland have learned during their nearly 50-year careers go to waste.
“We value their advice on how to avoid some of the pitfalls and hardships they faced during their early careers, especially as it pertains to being black,” wrote Millon and Mesgun. “We look up to them to learn ways we can continue to encourage black youth to aspire to become doctors and other health care professionals.”