Editor’s note: The Women in Surgery Committee of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) hosted a session at Clinical Congress 2021 on Breaking Barriers: Minority Women Pioneers in Surgery. The Bulletin is pleased to publish a series of the presentations given at this program. In this second installment, the author chronicles the achievements of Dorothy L. Brown, MD, FACS, who overcame many obstacles on her path to becoming the first Black woman general surgeon Fellow of the ACS. The first installment, which chronicled the achievements of Drs. Lori Arviso Alvord and Sylvia M. Ramos Cruz, appeared in the February 2022 issue.*
I was delighted to speak at Clinical Congress about Dorothy L. Brown, MD, FACS, surgeon, teacher, and legislator. Dr. Brown was born in Philadelphia, PA, in 1919. She moved to Troy, NY, with her mother and was placed in an orphanage. She lived between the orphanage and the home of her estranged mother.
She apparently ran away from home several times because her mother wanted her to be a maid like other Black girls and felt that she had had enough education. However, Dorothy desperately wanted to pursue an education and would run away—back to the orphanage.
Determined to Get an Education
By the time she was in high school, teachers started recognizing Dorothy’s talents, and she was placed with a loving foster family who supported her education. She was able to secure a four-year scholarship to eventually pursue her higher education. She graduated from Bennett College, Greensboro, NC, in 1941. Bennett College is a Methodist, historically Black college or university (HBCU). After college, she worked for the Army Ordinance Department in Rochester, NY, as part of the World War II effort.
She was accepted to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN, another Methodist HBCU, and graduated in 1948 at the top of her class. She completed her internship at Harlem Hospital, New York, NY, but was prevented from pursuing a surgical residency because of her gender. Fortunately, she was admitted to the program at the Meharry Medical College and Hubbard Hospital and completed her general surgery residency in 1955.
Meharry Medical College was founded in 1876, and was the first medical school in the south for Black people. From Reconstruction to the mid-20th century, most Black physicians in the US received their medical degrees from Meharry Medical College or from Howard University Medical School in Washington, DC. At the time, these two institutions were the only historically Black medical schools that emerged from Reconstruction and remained after the influential 1910 Flexner Report on medical education was released.
At the time Dr. Brown trained, in the 1940s and 1950s, Black surgeons had limited options for postgraduate training. Most trained at Hubbard Hospital, affiliated with Meharry; Freedmen’s Hospital, affiliated with Howard; Homer G. Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, MO; or Harlem Hospital. Had Dr. Brown been denied an opportunity to train at Harlem Hospital, it would have ended her career as a surgeon.
Fortunately, Matthew Walker Sr., chair of surgery at Meharry, accepted her into the program despite advice from his staff that a woman could not withstand the rigors of surgery. Dr. Brown is quoted as saying that Dr. Walker was a brave man.
Dr. Brown faced enormous resistance upon starting her postgraduate training, but she had faced resistance all her life. She had been told, “You’re a girl, you’re Black, you’re poor, and it just can’t be done.” But she persevered, and she succeeded. Along the way, she said, “I tried to be not hard, but durable.”
At the time Dr. Brown trained in the 1940s and 1950s, Black surgeons had limited options for postgraduate training. Had Dr. Brown been denied an opportunity to train at Harlem Hospital, it would have ended her career as a surgeon.
Dr. Brown eventually became a surgeon and a teacher. From 1957 to 1983, she was chief of surgery at Nashville’s Riverside Hospital and was the educational director for the Riverside Meharry Clinical Rotation Program. She rose through the ranks at Meharry to eventually become a clinical professor and attending surgeon at Hubbard Hospital. In 1957, Dr. Brown was the first and only woman in the department of surgery.
Dr. Brown also was a politician and legislator. She was active in changing law, beginning in 1956, when an unmarried patient asked Dr. Brown to adopt her newborn daughter. Dr. Brown agreed and fought to become the first single adoptive parent in Tennessee. In 1966, she became the first Black woman in the state legislature, serving as the 5th District’s representative for a 2-year term. While in office, she tried to reform the state’s restrictive abortion law, which permitted abortions only when the mother’s life was in danger. The bill she supported would have permitted abortions in cases of rape or incest. It fell short by two votes.
She also helped pass the Negro History Act, now Black History Month, which required all Tennessee public schools to conduct special programs during Negro History Week to recognize the accomplishments of Black Americans. In 1968, she ran for the state Senate and lost. It’s thought that her loss was in part because of her stance on abortion.
She eventually returned to full-time medical practice and remained active in the Civil Rights movement. Her background and training as a surgeon, I believe, made her a courageous champion for children, civil rights, and reproductive rights.
But what’s most remarkable to me is the impact she made beyond surgery and how relevant some of the issues she dealt with are today. Dr. Brown went on to receive numerous honors, awards, accolades, and honorary degrees. In 1970, the Dorothy L. Brown Women’s Residence Hall was named in her honor at Meharry Medical College. She received the Humanitarian Award from the Carnegie Foundation in 1993, the Horatio Alger Award in 1994, and was entered into the Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame posthumously in 2017.
An Exemplar of Persistence
Dr. Brown is known for a series of firsts. She was a trailblazer in surgery and beyond as the first Black woman surgeon in the south. In 1948, she was accepted to Meharry Medical College to train as a general surgery resident. In 1955, she was the first Black woman general surgeon to be inducted as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (ACS). (The first Black woman Fellow of the ACS was a gynecologist, Helena Octavia Dickens, MD, FACS, in 1950.) In 1956, Dr. Brown was the first single woman granted the right to be an adoptive parent in Tennessee, and in 1966 she was the first Black woman to serve in the Tennessee legislature. She accomplished all of these firsts in spite of, and probably partly because of, her humble beginnings.
Dr. Brown faced barriers because of her race and because of her gender. Yet she persisted and pursued her dreams as a surgeon, as a teacher, and as a legislator. Dr. Brown showed that you actually can be what you can’t see. She was proud to be a role model, not because, as she said, “I’ve done so much, but to say to young people that it can be done.”
*Reyna C. Trailblazing women minority surgeons: Sylvia M. Ramos Cruz, MD, MS, FACS: Surgeon, writer, and activist. Bull Am Coll Surg. 2022;106(2):24-27; and Karol SV. Trailblazing women minority surgeons: Lori Arviso Alvord, MD: The first Navajo Nation tribal member to be board certified in general surgery. Bull Am Coll Surg. 2022;106(2):28-31.
Flexner, Abraham. Medical Education in the United States and Canada: A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 1910; Bulletin No. 4., New York City: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, p. 346, OCLC 9795002, Available at: http://archive.carnegiefoundation.org/publications/pdfs/elibrary/Carnegie_Flexner_Report.pdf. Accessed March 10, 2022.
Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, Inc. 1994 Horatio Alger Award recipient: Dorothy L. Brown. Available at: https://horatioalger.org/members/member-detail/dorothy-l-brown. Accessed February 24, 2022.
Meharry Medical College. About the school of medicine. Available at: https://home.mmc.edu/school-of-medicine/about-the-school-of-medicine/. Accessed February 24, 2022.
Nashville Public Library. Nashville women whose names you should know. February 22, 2020. Available at: https://library.nashville.org/blog/2020/02/nashville-women-whose-names-you-should-know. Accessed February 24, 2022.
Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame. Dorothy Lavinia Brown, MD. Available at: https://www.tnhealthcarehall.com/2021/06/17/dorothy-lavinia-brown/. Accessed February 24, 2022.
Tennessee Historical Society. Tennessee Encyclopedia. Dorothy L. Brown. Available at: https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/dorothy-lavinia-brown/. Accessed February 24, 2022.
US National Library of Medicine. Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown. Available at: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_46.html. Accessed February 24, 2022.