Doctor or Doctress?

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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.

Why It Matters

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.

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Analyze this evidence

  • Why is the death rate so high in Tuskegee? Find two reasons from the text.
  • What does Tanner want to do to help the sick of Tuskegee and Macon County? Why has she been unable to achieve this goal, so far?

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Tuskegee is a retired little town, situated 40 miles east of Montgomery. There are found many suffering with diseases brought on by non-observance of the laws of health; for this is a portion of the South known as the “Black Belt,” and black it is, not only with People of this despised hue, but black with disease and death. In the vicinity of our school are hundreds in need of medical attention. Children with tubercular tendencies, sore eyes, various skin troubles, and in a pitiable condition generally. Women with faces bearing the marks of pain upon them; faces which testify but too plainly that life is a burden with such diseased bodies. Among them the most abject poverty, the blindest ignorance and the deepest apathy prevail. There is often the most stolid indifference as to the fate of the sick. This condition is to be largely attributed to the fact that medical attention, as a rule, is beyond the reach of but a few. The doctors charge $2.00 per mile for a visit, and this does not include the medicine. Now, where a person—as the majority of these do—lives ten or twelve miles in the country, and the doctor must be assured of his money before coming, often demanding cash, it is simply impossible for them to think of employing a physician. They bow their heads to the inevitable and say: “The Lord’s will be done.” Sometimes, when able to go to the doctor, this is done; even then the price is considerable and the skill questionable. Others drag out a miserable existence from day to day until relieved by death. The idea of establishing a dispensary at Tuskegee, is one which has been growing for a year or more, but circumstances have prevented its development. At last a friend in the North kindly donated a sum sufficient to put our ideas into definite shape. And so we have begun with scarcely anything to back us, but faith that such a project will succeed because of its great need and noble aim--the saving of lives. We are, however, in need of further assistance to render the undertaking it any degree successful. Our plans are to have an office accessible to the country people all through Macon County. At this office they can receive medical attention at a nominal price. Indeed, I feel that Tuskegee ought to be the place where the vital statistics of the colored people can and will be studied with intelligence. Already we have had sufficient encouragement to warrant us in the assertion that with proper encouragement, the Lafayette Dispensary will soon be a fountain of health to the weary and sick of Macon County.