Pioneering Health Equity: The Life & Medical Career of Dr Virginia M. Alexander

Posted on: 14 March 2024 by Mollie Hynes in 2024 posts

History Academics with Guest Speaker Prof Gamble
Prof. Vanessa Gamble is pictured in the middle, alongside members of our department

On the 11th March, we hosted the annual Frances Ivens Lecture, where visiting Prof. Gamble examined the life of Dr. Virginia M. Alexander, an African-American physician-activist. One of our students, Mollie Hynes, attended and gave an account of what she learnt.

In this year’s annual Frances Ivens Lecture, Professor Vanessa Northington Gamble offered invaluable insight into the career, achievements and challenges faced by Dr Virginia M. Alexander (1899-1949). The event was co-hosted by the Centre for Health, Arts, Society and Environment, the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, the Department of Public Health, Policy and Systems and the Department of History.

A group of students attending a lecture

Stephen Kenny introducing Prof. Vanessa Gamble to our audience

The title of this lecture, “Pioneering Health Equity,” applies equally to Dr Gamble, a pioneer in the histories of race and racism in medicine and public health. Professor of Medical Humanities, Medicine, Health Policy and American Studies at George Washington University, she is currently writing the biography of Dr Virginia M. Alexander, a Black female physician and activist who worked to expose the discrimination and racism faced by Black patients and physicians in the American medical profession and healthcare system.

Personal Connections

In the decision to write Alexander’s biography, Dr Gamble noted a series of personal connections they shared. Looking past the similarity of their work as physicians, both Gamble and Alexander grew up in Philadelphia, and had spent time living in Washington DC and Alabama. Both were graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, it was here that Gamble’s mentor, Dr Helen Dickens, introduced her to the life of Alexander, who she had practiced with in 1935. The most convincing of these connections for Gamble to begin writing Alexander’s biography was the discovery that their ancestors had been enslaved in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

Overcoming Individual Challenges

In the recognition of activism and individual activists, the personal challenges faced by those campaigning for broader, bigger structural changes often become obscured. This was a key theme that Dr Gamble highlighted in discussing the life of Alexander. In 1920, Alexander began her study at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she was the only Black American in her class. At this time, only 65 Black women physicians practiced across the United States. Facing discrimination from fellow students and professors throughout her higher education, Alexander’s activism began in 1924 as she led a protest to denounce the racism from a professor at the college. At her graduation in 1925, difficulties followed in finding an internship. Many hospitals did not accept Black interns and were particularly reluctant to accept female interns. Alexander eventually secured a position at Kansas City Hospital in Missouri, becoming the first female intern alongside her U. Penn classmate.

A powerpoint presentation slide on dr. alexander

Dr. Viriginia M Alexander pictured at her workspace 

Aspiranto Health Home

In 1927, Alexander returned to Philadelphia and began to provide outpatient care in her home. This became Aspiranto Health Home in 1930, a practice primarily for maternity care and for the Black community of Philadelphia, who faced difficultly in finding healthcare. Aspiranto Health Home was a uniquely interracial practice, with over 2000 Black and white patients being treated by 1933. The importance of interracial relations to Alexander is clear in her activism, as she used her ties to Quakerism to gain support for her 1935 report on the health problems of North Philadelphia.

Opposing Racism in Medicine

The report by Alexander connected the social and political factors of inadequate housing, education, employment and healthcare for the Black population to the cause of her North Philadelphia neighbourhood’s health disparities. Widening these disparities was the racism faced by Black patients in hospitals and by Black physicians in their professions. Using Quakerism to gain white attention and support, Alexander’s influence meant the Race Relations Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a predominantly white group, attempted to address and oppose racism in medicine. Alexander recognised that action against racism in medicine was not restricted to the profession but hinged on political and religious support too. She advocated for health equity throughout her life and career, long before it was considered a national public health issue.

The event highlighted the activism of an inspirational Black female physician, whose contributions to tackling racism in medicine and public health are both under recognised and were ahead of her time. To find out more about the life and career of Dr Virginia M. Alexander, alongside the activism of other Black female physicians, below is some further reading:

Vanessa Northington Gamble, ““Outstanding Services to Negro Health”: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Dr. Virginia M. Alexander, and Black Women Physicians’ Public Health Activism,” 

American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 8 (August 1, 2016): pp. 1397-1404. 


View the full recording of the Frances Ivens Lecture here