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Monday, April 15, 2024

Tracing the Legacy: The pivotal role of African Americans in Indiana’s medical advancements

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DARRYL LOCKETT
Darryl Lockett

Access to quality healthcare is vital to the wellbeing of every American. Indiana is no different. As we celebrate Black History month, it is important to reflect on the rich history of African Americans in Indiana’s medical progress and how far we have come. 

As Health Equity Director at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, I recognize that the health inequities we face are not fated or destined, but rather challenges that we can overcome and change. At the same time, I know we stand on the shoulders of giants who have shaped Indiana’s healthcare system for the better. 

We must not forget those who paved the path forward for us. Two icons in Indiana’s healthcare history who deserve recognition are Dr. Samuel A. Elbert and Dr. Beulah Wright Porter Price. 

Dr. Elbert was the first African American in Indiana to receive a medical degree and become a licensed physician. Born in Maryland in 1832 to free parents, he did not learn to read and write until his early twenties but served as the personal servant for Lt. Col. Stanley Matthews and future President Maj. Rutherford B. Hayes during the Civil War. 

Following the war, Elbert attended Oberlin College in Ohio and moved to Indianapolis in 1866. Though he wanted to study medicine, he found most medical schools would not accept him because of his race. However, he found two white doctors who were willing to open their personal libraries so he could privately study with them, and who would intercede to secure his admission to the newly opened Indiana Medical College in 1869. Although he paid tuition and completed the prescribed course of study, the college initially refused to grant him a degree. Eventually, the faculty reversed its position, and Dr. Elbert received his M.D. in 1871 and would go on to establish a large private medical practice. In 1879, Dr. Elbert was influential in one of the earliest efforts of organized care for sick African Americans in the state, as he worked alongside a Black Christian relief society to provide medical attention to sick black migrants. 

A voice for all Hoosiers and inspiration to all future physicians following in his footsteps, Dr. Elbert would later be appointed to the state Board of Health and nominated to the State Legislature as a Republican in 1882.

Dr. Porter Price similarly became the first African American woman physician in Indianapolis in 1897. She was an educator, physician, and active participant in the Indianapolis African American women’s club movement. Born in St. Louis, she started her career as a schoolteacher in the Indianapolis Public Schools in 1889 and married Jefferson D. Porter, a mail carrier, on March 8, 1893. 

Following her marriage, she gave up her position as a teacher and enrolled in the Indiana Medical College. From 1897 to 1901, she treated mostly African American women and children, but her medical career was frequently interrupted whenever a need to educate future generations arose. In 1905, she became principal of the segregated Robert Gould Shaw School, a position she held for 25 years. Although she gave up her practice, her medical expertise proved an invaluable asset to the Woman’s Improvement Club (WIC) of Indianapolis in its tuberculosis work, through which she established the first fresh-air camp for tuberculosis patients in the United States.

These physicians, who were pioneers in serving their communities, personally inspire me and remind us of the richness in the history of Indiana’s medical progress, particularly during Black History month. I’m honored to work for a trusted health partner that serves underserved communities, and which recently achieved the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) Health Equity Accreditation Plus status. Notably, we are the only Managed Care Entity in the state to achieve this recognition. This newly established accreditation recognizes our commitment to eliminating health disparities in underserved communities and leadership in developing solutions to expand access to equitable, high-quality healthcare. 

While there is still progress to be made, there is no better time to celebrate the contributions of those who have shaped Indiana’s healthcare landscape into its current formidable stature, especially the efforts of trailblazing heroes like Dr. Elbert and Dr. Porter Price. In tracing back this eventful legacy, we stay motivated to ensure that every Hoosier has a fair and just opportunity to attain their highest level of health.

Darryl Lockett is Health Equity Director for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Medicaid Health Plan in Indiana which serves more than 750,000 Medicaid members through the state’s Hoosier Healthwise (HHW), Hoosier Care Connect (HCC) and Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP) health insurance programs.

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