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Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson

Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson
October 17, 1864 – April 26, 1901
Notable: Physician
Nationality: American

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Show Notes

Halle Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the eldest daughter of her parents’ nine children. Her father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner was an AME minister who later became a bishop. Tanner’s mother Sarah Elizabeth Miller Tanner gave birth to nine children, though two died in infancy.

When the Tanners moved to Philadelphia, their home became a gathering spot for local and visiting Black intellectuals. As a result, Tanner received a good formal education but was also exposed to the philosophies of intellectuals of the time. While Tanner would become notable in her own right, her family also produced other prominent figures. Her brother, Henry Ossawa Tanner, became a world-famous painter. Her niece, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, was America’s first Black female Ph.D.

In 1886, Tanner married Charles E. Dillon and a year later the couple welcomed a baby girl whom they named Sadie. Unfortunately, after only two years, their marriage ended tragically when Charles died from pneumonia complications. A widow at the age of 24, Tanner Dillon returned to her parents’ home in Philadelphia.

Shortly after her return home, Tanner Dillon decided to become a doctor. She enrolled at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania where she studied for three years. Tanner Dillon was the only Black person in her class of 36 students and completed her M.D. with honors in 1891.

When Booker T. Washington wrote to the school in search of a Black physician who could teach at the Tuskegee Institute while also providing care for students, staff, and residents of the local community, Tanner Dillon was suggested as a candidate. Washington had struggled for four years to fill the position which Tanner Dillon accepted at a salary of $600 per month with room and board. Tanner Dillon moved from Pennsylvania to Tuskegee, Alabama in August 1891. While Tanner Dillon had completed her medical studies she was still required to pass the Alabama State Medical Examination to practice in the state.

Tanner Dillon was born a few months before the end of the American Civil War. While she received a great education in Pennsylvania, easy access to a quality education remained beyond the reach of most Black people in the South. Also, many women, regardless of race, did not have advanced educations.

Alabama’s medical exam was considered to be one of the toughest. Few Black men and no women of any race had passed the exam. Tanner Dillon sitting for the exam generated attention because she was Black and a woman. Washington made arrangements for Tanner Dillon to study for the exam with Dr. Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette, Montgomery’s first Black physician, as well as other Black doctors.

Tanner Dillon sat for the ten-day exam and impressed the examiners with her knowledge and preparation. When Tanner Dillon passed the exam, she became Alabama’s first female physician of any race. Her performance was cited in the Medical Association of the State of Alabama’s 1892 journal.

Tanner Dillon spent the next three years at Tuskegee providing care for 450 students, 30 staff members, and the community. In addition to teaching and operating a private practice, Tanner Dillon established Tuskegee’s nursing program and a pharmacy where she mixed medicines for locals.

During all this activity, Tanner Dillon met Reverend John Quincy Johnson, a member of the staff. The two married in 1894 and Tanner Dillon became Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson. Over the next few years, the couple had three sons. The family made several moves across the East as Rev. Johnson accepted academic positions and continued his education.

The family settled in Nashville where Rev. Johnson had accepted a position as pastor of an AME Church. Unfortunately, Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson died the following year on April 26, 1901, from childbirth complications.

Sources

  1. Armbrester, Katharine. 2023. “Who Was Halle Tanner Dillon?” ALABAMA HERITAGE. August 15, 2023. https://www.alabamaheritage.com/alabama-heritage-blog/who-was-halle-tanner-dillon.
  2. Bouyer, Martha V. 2022. “Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson.” Alabama African American History. November 2, 2022. https://alafricanamerican.com/beyond-the-book-halle-tanner-dillon-johnson/.
  3. Diaz, Sara. 2020. “Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson (1864-1901).” Blackpast.Org. February 25, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/johnson-halle-tanner-dillon-1864-1901/.
  4. “Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson.” 2015. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. June 3, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_172.html.
  5. Wright, A. J. 2024. “Dillon, Halle Tanner.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. March 7, 2024. https://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/halle-tanner-dillon/.

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