Dr Dorothy Lavinia Brown
The world of medicine and academics is very difficult for women to break into; especially for women of color even in today’s world. However, Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown managed to not only enter this world with intense racial and gender-based gatekeeping but also become a pioneer and a legend through her contributions.
This was at a time when she couldn’t go for a swim in a ‘Whites-only’ pool or sit in a classroom with people of all races. Yet, in 1948-49, she became the first-ever African-American female to became a resident in a surgical program in the segregated South. She would also go on to become the first-ever unmarried woman to be allowed to adopt a child in 1956. However, the list of firsts doesn’t stop there, as Dr. D (as she was known), became the first female Black representative to the state legislature in Tennessee in 1966.
Her life had the humblest, and at times drastically challenging, beginnings. Dr. D was born on January 7, 1919, in Philadelphia, to a mother who was unmarried, which during that time was nothing short of a taboo. Subsequently, Brown was sent to Troy Orphan Asylum, right outside Albany, New York when at just five-months-old.
Dr. Brown was a willful child, though bright, in her growing years. When her mother came back to her at the age of thirteen, she ran away from the woman who abandoned her at least five times. Though she was interested in medicine from the young age of five (after her tonsillectomy) she had to traverse through a variety of other jobs before that dream could materialize.
She worked at a laundromat and later as a mother’s helper before fleeing the Troy Orphanage in order to attend high school when she was approximately 15 years old and remained homeless until the school’s principal helped her get adopted. Her adoptive parents were Lola and Samuel Wesley Redmon whose support, love, and shelter allowed her to eventually graduate high school in 1937 as the class’s valedictorian.
Brown then attended the historically Black college and university (HBCU), Bennett College in Greensborough, North Carolina, on a scholarship from the Troy Conference of Methodist Women. Remarkably Brown graduated second in her class at Bennett college, and despite advice from administrators to become a teacher, she decided instead to follow her passion and attend medical school. Yet, Brown was redirected to join the war efforts of WWII as an inspector in the Rochester Army Ordinance Department for three years. She then attended medical school at Meharry Medical College, another methodist HBCU from 1944-1948. And after being denied surgical residency at Harlem Hospital during her internship, Brown went back to Meharry in Nashville, Tennessee, where she completed a five-year residency at George W. Hubbard Hospital. To learn more about her life at both of these institutions,
Just as she established herself as a surgeon, Dr. D was in a conundrum when an unmarried patient of hers pleaded with her to take in her child. And with this being an event strikingly similar to her own life, Dr. D considered it a god-send and became the first-ever single woman to adopt a child in 1956 in the state of Tennessee. As a tribute to her foster mother, Dr. D named her daughter Lola Denise Brown.
In our podcast, Megan calls her
“too radical for her time”
while Jamal calls her contributions
“instrumental for ‘liberalizing’ Black achievements”
Two of her biggest contributions come in the form of abortion rights as well as Black rights. When she became a representative, she promoted bills to transform abortion laws. A law against a thing doesn’t mean a thing ceases to happen. Criminalizing abortions did not mean people would not get abortions; it simply meant women would be put in more critical situations as they tried to find someone who would perform the operation somewhat safely. Dr. Brown recognized this fact and promoted safe abortions, especially in the case of rape, and incest.
Brown also played a part in advancing Negro History Week in Tennessee. A week dedicated to recognizing the contributions of Black people and their achievements the precursor of ‘Black History Month.’
Dr. Brown’s contributions would lead to a bouquet of awards and recognitions throughout her life. Dorothy L. Brown Women’s Residence at Meharry Medical College was created in 1970 in her honor. She was awarded a humanitarian award from the Carnegie Foundation in 1993. She even received the Horatio Algar Award in 1994. By then, she was quite old largely starting to settle down in a life of calm and quiet.
Her eventful and incredible life came to an end in 2004 when she died of congestive heart failure on June 13 at the age of 85. But her intense life is simply too large to limit in a few words. Hop onto (https://reclaimthebench.com/episode-5/) for a more detailed discussion of Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown.