Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown, Surgeon

For day 4 of black history month, let me say I am really appreciating black history month. I love American history, and it’s lifting my spirits that every time I log into social media, there’s a story about somebody admirable and noteworthy. I am all for seeing these stories year-round, but it’s especially great to have a concentration of them in these muddy days of February. Onward!

Today, I learned about Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown (1919-2004), a Tennessean surgeon – the first African American woman surgeon in the South. She was a sort-of orphan (abandoned by her mother from babyhood to age 13, then reclaimed) and teenage runaway (because her mom wasn’t so great) who worked her way through high school and then got a college scholarship.

She graduated from medical school in 1948, then bulldozed her way through another six years of internship and residency to become a surgeon. Remember this was a time when segregation was in effect, so not every white teacher or colleague or patient was friendly to even having her in a sickroom. It was also a time when a lot of people doubted women could become surgeons, because there was a fool idea women weren’t constitutionally sturdy enough to cut into people. She did it anyway, because she wanted to, because she’d been impressed by her own childhood tonsillectomy.

In 1956, several years into her surgical practice (and an assistant professorship), she became the first unmarried woman in Tennessee to adopt a child, because given her own childhood, she thought it was important, and given her adulthood – well, she was demonstrably a hard person to say “no, you can’t” to. So much so that in 1966, she was elected to the Tennessee state legislature, the first black woman rep in the Assembly. While there, she fought (unsuccessfully) to legalize abortions in cases of rape or incest, and she was very disappointed in the rest of Tennessee for not agreeing that was an important right that would save lives.

She also helped pass the Negro History Act, which was one of the steps toward giving us a national black history month. So when I say I’m glad it exists I’m partly saying thank you to Dorothy Lavinia Brown, a bold humanitarian who expanded the definition of what was possible.

Incidentally, during the two years she was in the legislature (and for a couple decades after), she was ALSO the head of surgery at Nashville Riverside Hospital. And a full professor. And at some points, a consultant for the NIH. That’s incredible. I have no idea which one she would have called her “day job.” Probably she wouldn’t have. But if any muggle has ever had a Time Turner, I submit it may have been Dorothy Lavinia Brown.

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