Black History Month: Dr. Dorothy Height

This month we’re highlighting prominent Black figures in the medical field and next up is Dr. Dorothy Height.

photo by Adrian Hood – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Dr. Height was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912 and grew up outside of Pittsburgh. She was a gifted speaker and student who won a oratorical scholarship that gave her the opportunity to student at New York University. She earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology in just four years. She then studied at Columbia University and New York School of Social Work and her first job was as a social worker in Harlem. She quickly became a leader in the Harlem Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and worked to integrate YWCA facilities throughout the nation.

After meeting civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Height began working with the National Council of Negro Women. She worked to end the practice of lynching Black Americans and in 1957 she became the president of the NCNW. During her time as president, the NCNW worked to increase voter registration throughout the South. She served as president of the NCNW for 40 years.

During her time in leadership, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, routinely called for her advice. In 1963, she helped organize the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She also pushed the other organizers to include a woman in the scheduled speeches and Daisy Bates was chosen. Ms. Bates was president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and one of the people who advised the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

In 1974, Dr. Height was named to the National Council for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This council published The Belmont Report, a document that outlined basic ethical principles and guidelines for conducting research on human subjects. The report was a direct response to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a human experiment where Black men were used as test subjects without their full consent. The study withheld treatment, leading the men to undergo permanent organ damage, paralysis, blindness, severe mental illness and even death. The study continued for 40 years before a whistleblower leaked the data to the media. Dr. Height and The Belmont report helped ensure that this type of experiment never happened again.

Other honors, recognitions and accomplishments:

  • Citizens Medal Award, 1989
  • Helped form the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom, 1990
  • National
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1994
  • Congressional Medal of Honor, 2004
  • Honored guest at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, 2009
  • D.C. post office is named after her

Dr. Height passed away on April 20, 2010. Her funeral was held at Washington National Cathedral. President Obama gave the eulogy.