Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown spent her childhood in an orphanage and grew up to become the first African American woman surgeon in the South, eventually being made chief of surgery at Nashville's Riverside Hospital. She was also the first African American woman to be made a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
Dorothy Lavinia Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1919. Soon after her birth, her mother, Edna Brown, moved to upstate New York and placed her in an orphanage there. The predominantly white Troy Orphanage (later renamed Vanderhyden Hall) was her home from age five months until her thirteenth birthday, when her mother reclaimed her. By that time, however, the orphanage seemed a safer home than the one her estranged mother could provide, so Dorothy ran away five times, returning each time to the orphanage. As a teen, she worked as a maid and at the Wing Sing Chinese Laundry. Determined to get an education, she finally ran away at age 15 to enroll in Troy High School. When the principal realized that she did not have anywhere to stay, he arranged for a foster home with Lola and Samuel Wesley Redmon. They became a major influence throughout Dorothy Brown's life, as a source of security, support, and enduring values.
In 1937, when Brown graduated from Troy High School at the top of her class, the Troy Conference Methodist Women awarded her a four-year scholarship to Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She received her B. A. in 1941, graduating second in her class, and became an inspector in the Rochester (New York) Army Ordinance Department as part of the war effort. Dorothy had wanted to become a physician since she had her tonsils removed as a child, and in 1944 she enrolled at Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated in 1948.
After a year's internship at Harlem Hospital, the next challenge was her choice of residency: surgery. There were no other black women in general surgery in the South and she had to forge through almost universal resistance. She said that "Dr. Matthew Walker was a brave man" because he accepted her into the program despite advice from his staff that a woman couldn't withstand the rigors of surgery.
Brown worked through a five-year residency at Meharry and George W. Hubbard Hospital to become Assistant Professor of Surgery in 1955 and the first African American woman to be made a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Describing her drive to persevere, Dr. Brown has said "I tried to be...not hard, but durable."
From 1957 to 1983 Brown was chief of surgery at Nashville's Riverside Hospital, clinical professor of surgery at Meharry Medical College, and educational director for the Riverside-Meharry Clinical Rotation Program. She also served as a consultant on health, education, and welfare for the National Institutes of Health (National Advisory Council Heart, Lung, and Blood) in 1982.
Brown's determination, beliefs, and values helped her to break through barriers in other aspects of her life too. When a young, unmarried patient implored the orphanage-raised physician to adopt her newborn daughter, Brown became the first single adoptive mother in Tennessee, in 1956. Then, in 1966, when redistricting opened the door for a black candidate, Brown was asked to run for a seat in the state legislature. She ran, and she won, becoming the first black woman representative to the state legislature in Tennessee. Brown would later resign after the bitter defeat of an expanded abortion rights bill she sponsored, frustrated in her belief that it had the potential to save the lives of many women in Tennessee.
Among Dr. Brown's many honors are the naming of the Dorothy L. Brown Women's Residence at Meharry College in 1970. She also received the humanitarian award from the Carnegie Foundation in 1993 and the prestigious Horatio Alger Award in 1994. As she often said, she was proud to be a role model, "not because I have done so much, but to say to young people that it can be done."