Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1919, Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown spent her youth at a New York orphanage. After graduating at the top of her class, Dr. Brown attended Bennett College before coming to Nashville to attend Meharry Medical College and fulfill her life’s dream of becoming a doctor.
Dr. Brown went on to intern for a year at Harlem Hospital in New York City but was rejected when she applied for a surgical residency because of her race and gender. She turned to Dr. Matthew Walker, Meharry’s longtime chief of surgery, for help who, against the advice of his staff, ordered Dr. Brown a faculty position she held for more than 20 years. She went on to become the first woman to practice general surgery in the south, Chief of Surgery at Nashville’s Riverside Hospital and the first African American woman to be made fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
But her personal life included great accomplishments, too. In 1956, Dr. Brown became the first single adoptive mother in Tennessee, and in 1966, when redistricting opened the door, she was asked to run for a seat in the state legislature and won, making her the first African American woman representative to the Tennessee State Legislature. In her position, Dr. Brown was successful in passing a law that allowed single women to adopt children throughout the state.
Among her many honors include the Dorothy L. Brown Women’s Residency at Meharry College, the Humanitarian Award from the Carnegie Foundation and the prestigious Horatio Alger Award, among others. As she often said, Dr. Brown 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.”
A dedicated mentor, avid civil rights advocate and decorated physician, Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown is a 2017 inductee of the Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame.