Dr. Hildrus Poindexter was the first African American to receive both an M.D. from Harvard University in 1929 and a Ph.D. in bacteriology from Columbia University in 1932.
He continued his schooling at Black Lincoln University, where he got his bachelor’s degree in 1924. He continued his study at Dartmouth College, where he completed his pre-medical studies before transferring to Harvard. According to Poindexter History, this gave him the power he needed to be selected as the Dean of the Medical College at Howard University in 1934.
Poindexter, an avid learner, returned to Columbia University after finishing his Ph.D. in 1937 to obtain a master’s degree in public health. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 10, 1901. He was the sixth of eleven children born to his parents.
Poindexter had always been an inquisitive child. He became aware that he was ill with cancer when he was 12 years old, but he had no idea what condition he had. Even though his parents were financially challenged, he found ways and means to raise monies to better comprehend his medical condition. He paid a doctor to do tests on him to determine what disease he was fighting. When it was determined, doctors were able to cure his malignant right leg through treatment and ongoing examinations.
In his autobiography, “My World of Reality in 1973,” he discussed his difficulties growing up in an impoverished family, how he worked hard in coal mines to pay for his schooling, and how white female patients refused to let him treat them because of the color of his skin.
Poindexter was denied a job at a US laboratory in the Philippines because of his race, according to the Harvard University website. His interest in community health drove him to enroll in epidemiology classes as part of an effort he spearheaded in Bullock County.
He was instrumental in conducting epidemiological surveys in minority groups, which led to the finding of syphilis and malnutrition among African Americans in the rural South. He devoted a significant portion of his medical career to improving the lives of these minority groups through schools and religious organizations.
Poindexter was a bacteriologist at the time he studied epidemiology, but he practiced in this new profession to earn international prominence. During World War II, he was recognized by the US government for his role in reducing malaria cases in the Solomon Islands by more than 86 percent in three months. He also conducted studies that allowed health officials to treat American soldiers for a condition caused by small worms that infiltrated their circulation.
He was appointed as the director of the Mission to Liberia to assist the West African country in combating infectious diseases and developing sanitation initiatives. During the 1940s and 1950s, Poindexter’s name became a point of reference for everyone performing research on malaria and other tropical diseases.
On April 21, 1987, he died in Clinton, Maryland.