By B.L. Wilson
Vanessa Northington Gamble, the first woman and African American to hold the position of university professor at George Washington University, has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as a member of the National Council on the Humanities for a term ending Jan. 26, 2026.
Gamble was nominated to the council by President Joe Biden. The council’s members are recognized for their knowledge of, expertise in and commitment to the humanities. The members, according to the council website, also have established records of distinguished service, scholarship or creativity in a manner that provides a comprehensive representation of the views of scholars and professional practitioners in the humanities and of the public throughout the United States.
“It’s an honor,” Gamble said. “It came totally out of the blue and gives me a platform to ensure that the history of race and racism are part of the dialogue in the humanities.”
Gamble, university professor of medical humanities, professor of medicine, professor of health policy and American studies, earned degrees in medicine and a Ph.D. in the history of sociology and science from the University of Pennsylvania. She said she sought to combine the degrees because of the importance of telling the story of all Americans and to make sure African Americans are included in the history of medicine.
“One of the things that the humanities help you to do is understand the human condition,” Gamble said. “With the practice of medicine, you’re practicing medicine on people and understanding what makes them human is critical.”
Among Gamble’s achievements in the study of race and racism is the founding of the University of Wisconsin Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in Medicine—among the first academic centers in the United States to address racial and ethnic inequities in health and health care.
A major area of her study and writings has been research that has been conducted on Blacks to determine whether Black people are biologically different than whites and the racial disparities in disease that often are equated to differences in biology rather than social conditions. The latter is a phenomenon that Gamble has been called on to address often during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said it is reminiscent of the 1918-19 influenza epidemic’s impact on the Black community.
An important part of the story she tells about that influenza epidemic is what African Americans did to take care of themselves as well as white people, an extension of the greater story of how Black professionals stepped in to establish institutions such as hospitals, medical societies and volunteer organizations that served the Black community when Black people were denied health care or relegated to the basement and attics of health facilities. That story is a part of Dr. Gamble’s award-winning book, Making a Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement: 1920-1945.
Gamble was also instrumental in the successful campaign to obtain an apology from the Clinton administration in 1997 for the infamous United States Public Health Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. That study is cited to explain African Americans distrust in the medical profession and more recently a reluctance to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
Gamble said is she is more inclined to see the issue as a matter of the medical profession’s “trust worthiness” rather than “distrust,” which puts the onus on African Americans and attitudes toward medicine she found that predate the Tuskegee syphilis study.
“History can help you look at these issues more critically,” she said, whether we’re discussing trust in medicine or differences in rates of disease in various communities. “We have to be very cognizant of how we look at communities of color without going to the default that it is racial.”
In addition to her confirmation by the Senate to the National Council of the Humanities, Gamble is set to receive an honorary degree from the SUNY Upstate Medical University. She will also be delivering the commencement address at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, of which she is the recipient of its Distinguished Graduate Award. She is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
GW is one of the few academic centers with a university professorship in medical humanities that allows her to combine her degrees in medicine and the humanities, she said, and has been supportive of her work and her activities.
The honors, she said are “an acknowledgement of work that I’ve done for many years that was sometimes isolating because not many people did it.”
Gamble’s current project is a biography of Virginia M. Alexander a Black woman physician-activist who was a pioneer in racial justice, public health and medicine.