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A Rare Accomplishment

Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, M.D.

The First Board-Certified Female Physician, of any Race, in the State of Alabama . “In 1891 it was rare for any woman to become a board-certified physician, but when Halle Tanner Dillon passed the Alabama State Medical Examination, even the New York Times took notice. . “While some southern newspapers had scoffed at the idea of a black woman even applying to take the exam, the Times noted that Johnson passed this "unusually severe" ten-day written exam to become "not only the first colored female physician, but the first woman of any race" to officially practice medicine in Alabama. . “In 1886, Johnson married Charles Dillon and the couple had a child before her husband's sudden death. A widow at 24, Halle returned to live with her family and decided to enter medical school. After three years of study at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, she earned her M.D. in 1891, graduating with honors.

“Around the time of her graduation, the noted African-American educator Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, had written to the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania to request a nomination for a teaching position he had been struggling to fill for four years. He hoped to find an African-American physician to serve the school and its surrounding community. Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon accepted Washington's offer of $600 a month, including lodging and meals, and arrived to begin her service in August 1891. . “Before beginning her new job, however, young Dr. Dillon had to face a significant obstacle: passing the Alabama State Medical Examination. The very fact that she was sitting for the examination caused a public stir in Montgomery, the state capital. She spent ten days taking the exam, addressing a different area of medicine each day. Her examiners included the directors and leading figures of most of the state's major medical institutions. Dillon impressed them with her responses and she passed the test. Key to her success was the extensive preparation afforded her under Booker T. Washington's watchful eye. He arranged for her to prepare for the exam by studying with a local Montgomery physician, Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette, the first licensed African-American physician in the city.”

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