Arthur McKinnon Brown

Arthur McKinnon Brown Arthur McKinnon (some sources give McKimmon) Brown (1867-1939) was one of the earliest African American physicians to practice in the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County. He spent most of his adult life in the city and was very active in its African American community. He served as a surgeon in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and was president of the national organization for black physicians, the National Medical Association. His former home in the Smithfield neighborhood served as a community center for more than a decade and as the home of the Birmingham chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

Brown was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 9, 1867, to Winfield Scott Brown, a prominent barber, and Jane Brown, who both valued education. Brown attended the Raleigh public schools and then entered Lincoln University, outside Oxford, Pennsylvania, on a competitive scholarship. Lincoln was the nation’s first historically black university and in its first 100 years graduated 20 percent of black physicians in the United States. Brown finished his degree there in 1888 and went on to fulfill his boyhood dream of becoming a doctor, graduating from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1891 with special qualification in surgery.

Arthur McKinnon Brown That fall, after a visit with his parents, who had relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, Brown moved to Birmingham and took the grueling medical exam administered by the Jefferson County Medical Board. While at Michigan, he had heard about the difficulty of Alabama’s exam and decided to test himself against it. At that time, the Alabama medical certification exam, established in 1877, had a national reputation as being very difficult. Despite segregation, African Americans (as well as white women) were allowed to take the state’s certification exam, and if they passed were able to set up a practice. They were not accepted for membership in the various county or the state medical societies, however.

Brown took the difficult exam and made the highest score recorded to that date. He opened a practice in Bessemer, Jefferson County, and joined the few other African American physicians active in the state. These included Burgess Scruggs in Huntsville, Madison County; Cornelius Dorsette in Montgomery, Montgomery County, and Halle Tanner Dillon at Tuskegee Institute. Dillon was the first woman to pass the Alabama medical exam. In 1893, a national economic collapse compelled Brown to return briefly to Cleveland, but by the following year he was back in Alabama and had settled in Birmingham.

Burgess E. Scruggs In spring 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, and Brown organized a volunteer unit but it was never called for duty. After he contacted the U.S. Surgeon General directly about serving in the conflict, Brown was offered a contract as a surgeon, without benefits offered to white surgeons, and in early August arrived in Cuba. When the chaplain, William T. Anderson, who had medical training, could no longer care for members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry, a black unit, Brown was assigned to it. He was one of only a handful of black contract surgeons in Cuba and served as commander of the 10th from mid-August through early October 1898. Brown and others described their experiences with the unit in Cuba in Herschel Cashin’s Under Fire with the 10th U.S. Cavalry, published in 1899. After improving conditions among the troops and reducing disease, he was ordered to Fort McIntosh in Texas in January 1899. Brown was wounded in a shooting incident by white hospital steward Thomas C. Reeds, and after recovery his contract was cancelled in April. Reeds was dishonorably discharged in June.

Brown and Parker Families Little is known of Brown’s first wife, but he married his second wife Nellie in 1905, and the couple became prominent members of the Birmingham’s African American community. He helped start the Children’s Home Hospital, which was the only local facility open to black doctors practicing in the city. Along with fellow physician Ulysses G. Mason and others, Brown worked tirelessly to achieve a replacement for the Thomas School, an institute for Black children that burned in the 1890s; the new school, designed by prominent black architect Wallace Rayfield, was built in 1910. Brown was a member of several community organizations, including the Elks and the Colored Citizens’ League, which formed in 1918 to promote African American rights in the city. Nellie served as an officer in various women’s social and civic clubs and participated in fundraising at their church, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Brown and his wife hired Rayfield to design their Craftsman-style home in the Smithfield neighborhood. Brown’s brother E. A. Brown had hired Rayfield previously around 1909 to design his home in the same area. A sign of Brown’s successful practice, he was able to spend $10,000 on the construction of the home. Brown’s son Walter donated the home to the Birmingham Art Club, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and became the A. M. Brown Memorial Community Center for Arts and Crafts. Later, it served as headquarters for the Birmingham Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

Brown was active in state and national organizations for black physicians. A surviving photograph shows him and other physicians from around the state at the Alabama State Medical Congress in April 1904. Indeed, by 1905, more than 60 African American physicians had established practices in Alabama. Brown attended various annual meetings of the Alabama Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association in cities around the state. He also served as president of the National Medical Association in 1914, and his presidential address at the meeting that year in Tuskegee, Macon County, was published in its journal. He died on December 4, 1939, at his residence after a long illness and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. The white-owned Birmingham News published a long obituary in which he is described as a leading surgeon in the African American community.

Additional Resources

Cashin, Herschel V. Under Fire with the Tenth U.S. Cavalry. 1899. Reprint, Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

Dyson, John M., Jr. “Doctors Five: African-American Contract Surgeons in the Spanish-American War.” Military Medicine 164 (June 1999): 435-41.

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