Monday, June 23, 2014

The First Certified, Practicing Female Physician in Alabama

The First Female Physician in Alabama

With women currently comprising half of all medical students nationwide, it is strange to think of a time in Alabama with no female doctors. Yet, in the late 1800s the idea of women physicians was controversial in Alabama. In 1872 and 1880, several speakers expressed opposition to women physicians in speeches at the state medical association's annual meeting.

However, by 1890 things were changing. The number of female physicians had grown nationwide, and the stage was set for women to enter the profession in Alabama. At that time, Booker T. Washington needed a resident physician at Tuskegee Institute. Halle Tanner Dillon had just graduated with honors from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania as the only African-American in her class. Washington wrote

Twenty-four year old Dillon had been born Halle Tanner, the daughter of Benjamin Tanner, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal Church minister. Her brother Henry O. Tanner would become a well-known artist. She had married Charles Dillon of Trenton, New Jersey in 1886, and had given birth to a daughter the following year. Her husband Charles died soon after the daughter's birth.

Booker T. Washington accepted Dillion for the resident physician position. She was to begin on September 1, 1891, but she had to pass the Alabama certification exam first. Washington knew the exam would be difficult for Dillon. She would have to spend several days answering hundreds of questions from the white male members of the board of examiners. So Washington arranged for her to study with his old friend Montgomery physician Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette, one of the earliest certified black physicians in Alabama.

Born in North Carolina in the early 1850s, Dorsette had been a classmate of Washington's at Hampton Institute and graduated from the University of Buffalo Medical School in 1882. After Dorsett's graduation, Washington had persuaded him to come south and set up practice as the first licensed African-American physician in Montgomery and one of the first in the state.

After her period of study with Dorsette, Dillon sat for the medical licensure examination. The test began in Montgomery on August 17, 1891, and concluded on August 25. During those days she was examined on ten subjects by ten different examiners. Among those examiners were some of the most prominent physicians in Alabama.

Dr. Peter Bryce, superintendent of Alabama Hospital for the Insane since 1860, tested her on medical jurisprudence. Dr. Jerome Cochran, state health officer and the primary force behind the Medical Licensure Act of 1877, examined Dr. Dillon in chemistry. Her examiner in natural history and diagnosis of diseases was Dr. George A. Ketchum, Dean of the Medical College of Alabama from 1885 until his death in 1906; he was also involved in creating the Medical Association of the State of Alabama in 1847. Dr. James T. Searcy, her examiner in hygiene, became superintendent of the state's hospital for the insane the following year after Dr. Bryce's death. Dillon was examined in obstetrical operations by Dr. J.B. Gaston, who had served as president of the state medical association in 1882.

Dillon passed the examinations and went on to serve at Tuskegee from September 1, 1891 until sometime in 1894. During her tenure she was responsible for the medical care of 450 students, as well as for 30 officers and teachers along with their families. Johnson was expected to make her own medicines, while teaching one or two classes each term. She was paid six hundred dollars per year plus room and board and was allowed one one-month vacation per year.

In 1894 Dillon married Reverend John Quincy Johnson, a mathematics teacher at Tuskegee. The following year Reverend Johnson was named President of Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1900 he became pastor of an AME church in Nashville. The Johnsons had three sons. Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson died on April 26, 1901, of dysentery and childbirth complications; she was 37. Apparently she had ceased the practice of medicine after her second marriage.

The state medical society's transactions had noted that Dillon was the first African-American woman examined in Alabama. Does that phrasing imply that the board had previously examined a white woman? At some point between April 1891 and April 1892, Dr. Anna M. Longshore took the certification examination, but did not pass. One source claims that Dr. Longshore remained in Alabama to practice without a license, but that has not been confirmed. What is known is that Dr. Longshore came to Alabama to take that examination after a long career in medicine elsewhere.

Anna M. Longshore Potts, M.D.
[from her book Love, Courtship and Marriage published in 1891]


Longshore was a member of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania's first graduating class in 1851. After marrying Lambert Potts and establishing a lucrative practice in Pennsylvania, and then in Adrian, Michigan, she began to give talks on health topics to private groups of her patients. By 1876 Dr. Longshore-Potts had moved her talks to public venues. These efforts were so successful that she took her lectures on women's health topics on the road, appearing to great acclaim in San Francisco in 1881, followed by other west coast cities.

Thus when she came to Alabama in 1891 or 1892 to take the physician certification exam, Dr. Longshore-Potts had already established a successful career as a doctor, followed by another career as medical lecturer that had made her both famous and wealthy. We can only speculate as to why this successful woman, in her early 60s, took this arduous test under her maiden name. Perhaps Dr. Longshore-Potts saw herself as some sort of pioneer in this situation; yet what is known about her activities elsewhere does not give us a portrait of a radical reformer.

A few other women physicians appeared in Alabama before 1900, including Annie Louise Farrington, Justina Lorena Ford, and Ella Elizabeth Barnes. Several more were practicing by World War I. See the links below for more information.

Dr. Dillon was not the first female physician in Alabama, but the first to be certified by the state examination process under a law passed in 1877. In the 1850s Louisa Shepard graduated from her father's medical school in Dadeville, the Graefenberg Medical Institute. The school closed in 1861 after graduating some 50 students, including two of Louisa's brothers. She never practiced medicine; she married William Presley and they moved to Texas. Louisa died in 1901.


Early Black Physicians in Alabama

Early Female Physicians in Alabama


An earlier version of this post appeared in the Birmingham Medical News in 2012.

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