Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating Pioneers in Medicine

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Oregon Clinic

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15th – October 15th), we are sharing the incredible stories of Hispanic and Latinx individuals who made important contributions to the medical community and society as a whole.

The Oregon Clinic is proud to honor the groundbreaking achievements and discoveries Hispanic physicians, nurses, scientists, and researchers have made, and continue to make. The people highlighted below are just a few of many inspiring Hispanic medical pioneers who have had a profound impact on the healthcare field.

 Dr. José Celso Barbosa

In 1880, Dr. José Celso Barbosa was the first person from Puerto Rico to graduate from medical school in the US. He joined the Red Cross and treated soldiers in the Spanish-American War. After the war, he returned to Puerto Rico where he developed the idea of employer-based health insurance – a radical idea at the time – inspired by the poverty among his patients. He also served in the Puerto Rico Senate until 1921 and founded a political party that advocated for Puerto Rican statehood.

 Dr. Severo Ochoa

Severo Ochoa, MD, was a Spanish-American biochemist who graduated from the University of Madrid’s medical school in 1939 and went on to teach at the New York University College of Medicine for 30 years. Known as “the man behind RNA,” in 1959, Dr. Ochoa was the first Hispanic American to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of his work discovering an enzyme synthesizing ribonucleic acid, which was vital in furthering understanding of the human genetic code.

Dr. Ildaura Murillo-Rohde, PhD, RN, FAAN

Dr. Ildaura Murillo-Rohde was a Panamanian-American nurse and professor who founded the National Association of Hispanic Nurses in 1975. She felt strongly that the country needed an organization to attract Hispanic people to nursing as well as to support their unique concerns and those of the communities they served. Dr. Murillo-Rhode was a trailblazer in nursing: the first Hispanic nurse awarded a PhD from New York University and the first Hispanic Dean of Nursing at SUNY. Over her career, Dr. Murillo-Rohde also wrote about a broad range of issues from single parenthood to same-sex couples.

 Dr. Antonia C. Novello

In 1990, Dr. Antonia C. Novello became the first woman and first person from Puerto Rico to serve as Surgeon General. She previously spent 20 years at the National Institutes of Health where she served as deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. As Surgeon General, Novello continued to advocate for children’s health, addressing issues like underage drinking and cigarette ads that targeted children. After leaving the role of Surgeon General, Novello became a representative of UNICEF, continuing her work in public health advocacy.

 Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías was a Puerto-Rican American pediatrician, educator and women’s rights activist who was the first Hispanic woman to be named president of the American Public Health Association in 1993. She was also a leader in public health and an activist for equal rights in healthcare for women and children from historically marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds. In 1979, she co-founded the Campaign to End Sterilization Abuse, which led to strict federal guidelines for consent. In the 1980s, she led the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute and pioneered standards of care that became the nationwide model for HIV/AIDS treatment. She received a Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2001.