Born in a Philadelphia ghetto rooming house in 1919, Dorothy Brown was raised in an orphanage in Troy, New York, until she was 13 years old. She was an undaunted, inquisitive child who had a special relationship with the superintendent of the orphanage, Herbert Hahn, and his wife.
When Brown was five, she needed to have her tonsils removed. The experience gave her a yearning to be a doctor. She shared her dream with anyone who would listen to her and could never understand when they said it couldn't be done. By the age of eight, Brown noticed she was one of the only children who never had visitors. The next visiting day, her name was called to come to the visiting room. Hahn had spoken with a local businessman, Frank Coffeen, who brought his wife and 16-year-old daughter to visit Brown. From that day forward, they came to see Brown every chance they could.
When Brown was 13, her biological mother came to claim her from the orphanage. They lived in a tenement in downtown Troy, and Brown's life became a nightmare. Her mother beat her, and Brown ran away three times, but each time the courts returned her to her mother.
The summer before she started high school, Brown worked in the same Chinese laundry as her mother. Three months after high school started, Brown's mother pulled her out of school and sent her to work for a family in Albany, where she ironed and babysat. Two years later, Brown returned to Troy to go to school. She was taken in by an older couple whom she called Grandpa and Grandma. They encouraged her to stay in school and get an education.
A dedicated student, Brown received a four-year scholarship to Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She graduated in 1941; moved to Ithaca, New York; and took courses at Cornell University. From there, she went to Nashville's Meharry Medical College, graduating in 1948. She completed her internship at New York's Harlem Hospital and her residency in general surgery at George W. Hubbard Hospital in Nashville. In 1971, she was named director of student health services at Fisk University and joined Meharry's faculty as a clinical professor of surgery.
Only the third black female physician to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons, Brown continued to practice and teach at Meharry well into her later years. Even though Brown was often told she'd never become a doctor, she had been determined not to let her dream die. She once said, "Dreams can be made to come true."