BY Stephen Nartey, 12:20pm December 13, 2022,

Dr. Hildrus Poindexter, the first African American to receive both an MD and PhD

Dr. Hildrus Poindexter/Photo credit: Sakai@UNC

Dr. Hildrus Poindexter is the first African American to receive both an M.D., which he earned at Harvard University in 1929, and a Ph.D., which he earned in bacteriology at Columbia University in 1932. 

In 1924, he furthered his education at the Black Lincoln University where he received his bachelor’s degree. He continued at Dartmouth College where he accessed his pre-medical education before proceeding to Harvard. This gave him the leverage to be appointed as the head of the Medical College at Howard University in 1934, according to Poindexter History.

Being an avid learner, Poindexter returned to Columbia University after completing his Ph.D. to acquire a master’s degree in public health in 1937. He was born on May 10, 1901, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was the sixth child out of 11 children his parents gave birth to.

Poindexter had always been a curious child. When he was 12 years old, he noticed he was unwell with cancer but he was uncertain what disease he was suffering from. Though his parents were financially handicapped, it did not stop him from finding ways and means to raise funds to understand his medical condition. He paid a physician to run tests on him to understand what disease he was battling. When that was established, through treatment and continuous tests, doctors were able to cure his right leg which was cancerous.

In his autobiography, “My World of Reality in 1973”, he spoke about his challenges growing up as someone from a poor background, how he strenuously worked in coal mines to pay for his education and how white female patients refused to allow him to treat them because of the color of his skin.

According to the Harvard University website, Poindexter was denied a job at a U.S. laboratory in the Philippines because of his race. His passion for community health compelled him to take up courses in epidemiology through an initiative he carried out at Bullock County.

He was behind epidemiology surveys in minority communities that led to the discovery of syphilis and malnutrition among African Americans in the rural South. He dedicated a substantial part of his medical profession to improving the lives of these minority groupings at schools and religious organizations.  

At the time of studying epidemiology, Poindexter was a bacteriologist, but, he practiced in this new field to gain international recognition. He was acknowledged by the U.S. government for helping bring down the number of malaria cases in the Solomon Islands by over 86 percent in three months during World War II. He also carried out research that enabled health authorities to treat American soldiers for a disease that was caused by tiny worms that entered their bloodstream.

He was made the director of the Mission to Liberia to help the West African nation to bring down infectious diseases and help plan sanitation reduction programs for them. Poindexter’s name during the 1940s and 1950s became a reference point for anyone conducting research into malaria and other tropical diseases.

He died on April 21, 1987, in Clinton, Maryland.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 13, 2022


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