Dorothy Lavinia Brown
January 7, 1919 – June 13, 2004
Dorothy Brown was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Edna Brown though sources provide no information about her father. Shortly after her birth, Brown’s mother moved to Troy, New York and at the age of five months, she was placed in an orphanage. The Troy Orphan Asylum (now Vanderheyden) had a rather dreary exterior and served as a haven for children whose families were desperate and having financial issues.
Home to about 100 children, the orphanage maintained order by establishing a very regimented environment. There were strict rules aimed at teaching the children to be self-disciplined and responsible but the staff was not harsh. Brown and the other children received simple clothing, attended church on Sundays, and were expected to do chores and keep up with their schoolwork. The orphanage provided stability and security but still allowed the children the freedom to play outside once their work was done.
Brown first came into contact with the medical field when she was five years old and had her tonsils removed. Recuperating back at the orphanage, the staff provided her with a great deal of care and comfort. The experience ignited her dream of becoming a surgeon. This aspiration would be a guiding force in her life and a passion she would openly share despite others dismissing it as not being possible.
The Troy Orphanage was a place where some families left their children not because they didn’t want them but because they didn’t have the means to take care of them. Thus most of the children received visits from their families. Unfortunately, Brown was not one of the children who received visits and began to notice this difference around the age of eight. The superintendent arranged for a local businessman and his family to begin visiting Brown so that she wouldn’t feel left out.
On Brown’s 13th birthday, her mother appeared at the orphanage to take her daughter back. But her estranged mother’s re-entry into her life marked the beginning of an incredibly unhappy period. Brown’s mother was violent at times and beat her, which caused Brown to run away to the orphanage. Each time she ran away the courts sent Brown back to live with her mother.
Brown began working a summer job at a Chinese laundry that also employed her mother. But just three months after starting high school, her mother stopped her from attending school and instead sent her to work as a domestic in Albany where she spent two years. During that time Brown worked as a mother’s helper for Mrs. W.F. Jarrett who encouraged her to go back to high school and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
Brown ran away again and this time enrolled at Troy High School. When the principal realized Brown was homeless, arrangements were made for her to stay with Samuel Wesley and Lola Redmon and the couple became Brown’s foster parents. Back in a stable environment, Brown thrived in school and was the valedictorian of her graduating class. She had continued to work and combined her savings with a four-year scholarship which enabled her to attend Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina from which she graduated second in her class.
During the next three years, Brown took classes at Cornell University and spent two years working at the local Army Ordnance Department. In 1944, she enrolled at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee from which she would receive her medical degree. Brown then completed a one-year internship at Harlem Hospital. The next step in Brown’s journey was finding a surgery residency but there was some difficulty. Many programs held the sexist belief that women could not deal with the demands of performing surgery. And the South had no general surgeons who were Black women.
Dr. Matthew Walker, the head of surgery at Meharry’s George W. Hubbard Hospital decided to take a chance on Brown over the objections of other staff members. Brown was accepted into a five-year general surgery residency program and upon completion became the first Black female surgeon in the South. In 1955, Dorothy L. Brown became the Assistant Professor of Surgery and the first Black woman to be a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Two years later, Brown became the chief of surgery at Nashville’s Riverside Hospital and served in the position for 26 years until the hospital closed. She held other medical professor and educational roles in addition to serving as a consultant for the National Institutes of Health.
Brown also achieved several firsts in other professional areas and her personal life. In 1956, she adopted the daughter of an unmarried patient who had made an emotional appeal for her to take the infant. She was single and with this adoption became the first known single woman to adopt a child in Tennessee. Brown named the girl Lola Denise Brown in honor of her foster mother.
In 1966 she took advantage of redistricting to run and win the election for the Tennessee House of Representatives, becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the Tennessee State Legislature. She helped to introduce a bill that pushed for the expansion of legalized abortion to allow for the procedure in instances of rape or incest but it was deemed too controversial and voted down. Other Brown-sponsored legislation included recognition of what was then Negro History Week in which all Tennessee public schools had to participate. She also helped to successfully pass a bill to allow single women to adopt children.
Despite a rough childhood, Dorothy L. Brown lived an incredible life and relentlessly pursued her dreams against the odds and naysayers. She received several awards and honorary degrees in recognition of her achievements. Dorothy L. Brown died in Nashville on June 13, 2004, of congestive heart failure at 85 years old.
- Bourlin, Olga. 2015. “Dorothy Lavinia Brown (1919-2004).” Blackpast.org. January 19, 2015. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/brown-dorothy-lavinia-1919-2004/.
- “Dorothy L. Brown.” n.d. Horatio Alger Association. Accessed October 30, 2021. https://horatioalger.org/members/member-detail/dorothy-l-brown.
- “Dorothy Lavinia Brown.” 2015. Changing the Face of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine. June 3, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_46.html.
- Owens, Anne-Leslie. 2019. “Brown, Dorothy Lavinia.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society. February 19, 2019. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/dorothy-lavinia-brown/.
- Sparling, Reed. n.d. “From a Troy Orphanage to a Pioneering Medical Career: Pathbreaker Dorothy Lavinia Brown.” Scenic Hudson. Accessed October 30, 2021. https://www.scenichudson.org/viewfinder/from-a-troy-orphanage-to-a-pioneering-medical-career-pathbreaker-dorothy-lavinia-brown/.
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