The First Female Physician in Alabama


 
Dept. of Anesthesiology
UASOM

With women currently comprising half of all medical students nationwide, it is almost hard to remember a time without 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. Dillon, the only African-American in her class, wrote Washington to apply for the Tuskegee Institute position.

24 year old Dillon had been born Halle Tanner, the daughter of Benjamin Tanner, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal Church minister. 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 Montgomery physician Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette. 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.

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.

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.

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