Dorothy Lavinia Brown, surgeon, legislator, and teacher, rose from humble beginnings in Troy, New York, to become the first female African American surgeon in the Southeast and the first African American woman to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly. She was born in Philadelphia on January 7, 1914, to Edna Brown. When she was only five months old, her mother placed her in an orphanage in Troy, New York, where she would live for the next twelve years. During her stay at the orphanage, Brown underwent a tonsillectomy at the age of five and caught a glimpse of the world of medicine. From that day on she dreamed of being a surgeon.
Just prior to her thirteenth birthday, Brown’s mother tried to reenter her life by bringing her daughter to live with her. Brown ran away from home five times, always returning to the Troy orphanage. At the age of fifteen Brown ran away again, this time to enroll at the Troy High School. With assistance from her principal, Brown was taken in by foster parents, Samuel Wesley and Lola Redmon, whom she affectionately referred to as Grandma and Grandpa. Under their guidance Brown completed high school, working summers and after school as a domestic to earn money for college.
With assistance from the Methodist Women of Troy Conference, Brown attended Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, a small Methodist college named for a local Troy minister. After graduation, she worked for two years at the Rochester (New York) Army Ordnance Department until she began medical school at Nashville’s Meharry Medical College in 1944.
Brown spent her year-long internship at the Harlem Hospital in New York City, returning to Meharry’s Hubbard Hospital in 1949 for her residency. Matthew Walker, then head of surgery, was initially reluctant to admit a woman into the strenuous five-year training program in general surgery but finally consented. Brown’s persistence, dedication, and hard work earned her the appointment of chief of surgery at Nashville’s Riverside Hospital, a position she held from 1957 until the hospital’s closing in 1983.
During this time Brown was approached by an unmarried patient who begged the doctor to adopt her newborn daughter. Brown legally adopted the infant in 1956, becoming the first known single woman in Tennessee to adopt a child, and named her daughter Lola Denise Brown after her foster mother.
In 1966 redistricting offered the successful doctor and community leader yet another challenge, a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. She won the election, becoming the first African American woman elected to the Tennessee General Assembly. Concerned with the issues of health, education, and welfare reform, Brown introduced a controversial bill to reform the state’s archaic abortion law. At that time, Tennessee law permitted abortions only in cases where the mother’s life was in danger. Brown’s bill would have legalized abortions caused by rape or incest. The bill met great resistance and fell two votes short of passage. Also during her term in the Eighty-fifth General Assembly, Brown was instrumental in getting a Negro History Act passed. It required all Tennessee public schools to conduct special programs during Negro History Week to recognize accomplishments made by African Americans.
After 1968 Brown, known as “Dr. D,” returned to her medical practice full-time. In addition to serving as chief of surgery at Riverside Hospital, Brown also has been attending surgeon at Hubbard and General Hospitals, educational director of the Riverside-Meharry clinical rotation program, and clinical professor of surgery at Meharry Medical College. The many honors and distinctions bestowed upon Brown include: Fellow, American College of Surgeons, 1959, the third woman to be so honored; the naming for her of the Dorothy L. Brown Women’s Residence at Meharry Medical College, Nashville, 1971; and honorary doctorate degrees from Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, and Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Brown continues to live and work at her home in Nashville. Over the last few years she has scaled down her medical practice to allow herself time to work on her autobiography.