Doctor or Doctress?

Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians

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A report by Dr. Halle T. Johnson (Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson), published in the Report of the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Alumnae Association of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, May 9 and 10, 1894. In her report to the Alumnae Association, Dr. Johnson describes the extremely poor health of the poor, rural, African American population around Tuskegee and in surrounding Macon County, and describes her efforts to alleviate these conditions through the establishment of the Lafayette Dispensary.

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“She Has Undertaken a Herculean Task”: Early African American Women Physicians

Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson was one of nine children from a prominent Philadelphia-based African American family. Her father was Reverend Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a scholar and bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and editor of the influential AME publication the Christian Recorder. Her brother was renowned painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, one of the first African American painters to achieve fame in Europe. Halle Tanner Dillon (later Johnson) graduated from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) in 1891. Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, was seeking an African American physician, preferably female, to fill the position of resident physician there. Dillon applied and went to Alabama where Washington arranged for her to study with a tutor in order to pass the extremely rigorous, ten-day Alabama state medical licensing examinations. [Dillon wrote to her father and to WMCP dean Clara Marshall and describing the ordeal.] She passed and became the first woman of any race to be licensed as a physician in Alabama. Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson was resident physician at Tuskegee Institute from 1891 to 1894, serving the school community of students, faculty, staff and their families while also teaching classes at the Institute. Recognizing the unmet healthcare needs of the surrounding local population, Dr. Johnson established the Lafayette Dispensary as an outpatient clinic, mixing medicines herself.

Johnson’s efforts to establish a dispensary (clinic) is an example of how early African American women physicians were compelled to establish new institutions to address inequities in healthcare for African Americans as well as professional opportunities for African American doctors, especially woman doctors. Additionally, Johnson attributes the poor health of the community around Tuskegee to poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and lack of access and transportation to affordable health care. Some people at this time blamed the supposed weakness of African Americans for their ill health. Johnson’s experience refutes this, and in fact, she thinks that the resilience of the people in the face of these conditions only proved their strength, which could be improved with better health.

Creator: Dillon, Halle Tanner

Language: english

Item Number: r747_w82_1894_002

Pages: 2

Size: 14X21

Physical Collection: ACC-R747/W82, ACC-R747/W82

Cite this source: Title of document, date. Early African-American Woman Physicians: She has undertaken a Herculean task. Doctor or Doctress?: Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians. The Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives & Special Collections. Philadelphia, PA. Date of access.

African American women physicians

Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania--Alumni and alumnae

Poor-- medical care

Medical social work

Tuskegee (Al.)

Philadelphia (Pa.)