Dorothy Lavinia Brown

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Dorothy Lavinia Brown
Dorothy Lavinia Brown.jpg
Born(1914-01-07)January 7, 1914
DiedJune 13, 2004(2004-06-13) (aged 90)
  • surgeon
  • politician
  • teacher
Known forfirst female African American in the Tennessee General Assembly

Dorothy Lavinia Brown[1] (January 7, 1914 – June 13, 2004[2]), also known as "Dr. D.",[3] was an African-American surgeon, legislator, and teacher. She was the first female surgeon of African-American ancestry from the Southeastern United States. She was also the first African American female to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly as she was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives.[3][4] While serving in the House of Representatives Brown fought for women rights with abortions and for the rights of people of color.


Brown was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,[5] and was surrendered to the Troy Orphan Asylum, an orphanage in Troy, New York at five months old by her mother, Edna Brown. Dorothy lived at the orphanage until the age of 12.[6] During that period, she had a tonsillectomy operation, an experience that sparked her interest in the field of medicine.[3]

Although her mother tried to persuade the young Dorothy to live with her again, Brown kept running away, returning to the Troy orphanage. At the age of fifteen, Brown ran away to enroll at the Troy High School. She worked as a mother's helper in the house of Mrs. W. F. Jarrett,[5] in Albany, New York, which was just west across the Hudson River.[7] Assisted by a principal of the school, Brown was introduced to Samuel Wesley and Lola Redmon, a couple who became her foster parents.[3] When she was fifteen, she worked at a self-service laundry.[8]


After finishing high school, Brown attended Bennett College, a historically black college in Greensboro, North Carolina. She earned money during this period as a domestic helper. She was aided by a Methodist woman, of the Division of Christian Service, to be admitted into the American College of Surgeons, where she earned a BA degree in 1941.[5]

She began working as an inspector at the Rochester Army Ordnance Department in Rochester, New York.[3][5] In 1944, Brown was admitted to study medicine at Meharry Medical College, a historically black college in Nashville. She completed her internship at the Harlem Hospital in New York City.[3] After graduating in 1948 in the top third of her class,[5] Brown became a resident at Hubbard Hospital of Meharry in 1949, despite local opposition to training female surgeons. She had gained approval from the chief surgeon, Matthew Walker, Sr., M.D.[3][5] Brown completed her residency in 1954.[5]


After a tonsillectomy at age 5, Brown knew she wanted to be a surgeon. To start off her career Brown helped as a doctor in World War II. She worked as an inspector in the Rochester Army Ordinance Department. Brown was the chief surgeon at the now-defunct Riverside Hospital in Nashville from 1957 to 1983.[3] In 1966, she became the first African-American female to be elected to the Tennessee General Assembly (known also as the Tennessee State Legislature[5]), a position she held for two years.[5] She almost succeeded in having abortions legalized in cases of rape or incest, and in expanding the already existing legally permitted abortions in cases when the "mother's life was in danger".[3] During her career as a politician, Brown also became involved in the passing of the Negro History Act, which required public schools in Tennessee to "conduct special programs during Negro History Week to recognize accomplishments made by African Americans".[3]

In 1968, Brown tried to obtain a seat in the Tennessee Senate, but lost in part due to her support for abortion laws.[5] In 1968, following her departure from politics, Brown returned to becoming a full-time physician at the Riverside Hospital.[3] Brown also acted as an attending surgeon at the George W. Hubbard and General Hospitals, as director of education for the clinical rotation program of the Riverside and Meharry Hospitals.[3] She was also a surgery professor at the Meharry Medical College and consulted for the National Institutes of Health in the National Heart, Lung and Blood Advisory Council.[5][9]

After losing in her run for a seat in the Tennessee Senate, Brown served on the Joint Committee on Opportunities for Women in Medicine, sponsored by the American Medical Association. Along with support women in medicine, Brown also had a major influence in the fight for colored peoples rights and was a life long member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Personal life[edit]

In 1956, Brown agreed to adopt a female child from an unmarried patient at the Riverside Hospital. The patient begged for Dorothy to adopt her[3] because the patient couldn't support the child without a husband, and knew that Brown would be an excellent mother.[citation needed] Brown became the first known single female in Tennessee to legally adopt a child, whom she named Lola Denise Brown in honor of her foster mother.[3] She later adopted a son, Kevin.[10] Brown was a member of the United Methodist Church.[5]


Brown wrote an autobiography,[3] essays, and inspirational guides.[5]


In 1959, she became the third woman to become a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the first African-American woman to be elected.[3][9] In 1971, the Dorothy L. Brown Women's Residence at Meharry Medical College, Nashville, was named after her. She also received honorary doctorate degrees from the Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, and also from Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina.[3] In particular, she received her honorary degrees in the Humanities from Bennett College and Cumberland University.[5]

Brown was a member of the board of trustees at Bennett College and of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She participated as a speaker on panels that discussed scientific, religious, medical, and political issues.[5] Brown was also awarded the Horatio Alger Award in 1994 and the Carnegie Foundation's humanitarian award in 1993.[9]

Because Dorothy Lavinia Brown had accomplished so much in her career as a surgeon, she was a very sought-after public speaker, both nationally and internationally.


She died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2004 of congestive heart failure.[11]


  1. ^ Brown, Lola Denise (daughter of Dorothy Lavinia Brown). "Dorothy L. Brown". African American Registry. Archived from the original on June 29, 2009.
  2. ^ Martini, Kelli. Dorothy Brown, South's first African-American woman doctor, dies, News Archives, The United Methodist Church, June 14, 2004,
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Anne-Leslie Owens, "Dorothy Lavinia Brown," Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002.
  4. ^ Windsor, Laura Lynn (2002). Women in Medicine: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 37–38. ISBN 978-1-57607-392-6.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o McKenzie, Julie and Denita Denhart. Dorothy Lavinia Brown Archived March 16, 2005, at the Wayback Machine, The Scientist Bank,
  6. ^ "Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown Biography". Changing the Face of Medicine. 3 June 2015. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  7. ^ Warren, Wini. Black Women Scientists in the United States, pp 19–23
  8. ^ "Dorothy Lavinia Brown (1919-2004) • BlackPast". BlackPast. 2015-01-19. Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  9. ^ a b c "Changing the Face of Medicine | Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown". Retrieved 2016-02-26.
  10. ^ "Dorothy Brown, South’s first African-American woman doctor, dies". Retrieved 2019-02-27.
  11. ^ "Surgical Pioneer, Dorothy Lavinia Brown". African American Registry. Retrieved February 22, 2014.