A Splendid Physician

Olivia Campbell
6 min readMar 9

Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson brings quality healthcare to Tuskegee, Alabama

For four long years, Booker T. Washington had been searching for the right person to act as resident physician at his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He finally reached out to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania to see if they could recommend anyone.

Halle Tanner Dillon was just the woman for the job. Washington wrote to her personally to request she take on the position. She headed south in the thick of summer, August 1891, just a few months after earning her MD. Several women of color had studied at the WMCP since its founding in 1850, but that year, Halle was the only Black student in her class.

Halle was born in Pittsburgh in 1864, the first daughter of Benjamin Tucker Tanner and Sarah Elizabeth Tanner. The couple were active, prominent members of the community; Benjamin was a bishop in Pittsburgh’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. The children were well educated and Halle helped her father publish the church’s newspaper, the Christian Recorder.

At 22, Halle married Charles Dillon. Two years later, the couple welcomed a baby. But Charles died suddenly, leaving Halle a widow at 24. Needing a way to support herself and her child, she headed off to medical school. After three years, she graduated with honors. She was incredibly fortunate to be headhunted for a job so soon after graduating. Many women MDs of the era found hospitals and doctor’s offices were wary of hiring them, simply because they were women.

WMCP Class of 1891. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, circled. Photo courtesy Legacy Center Archives, Drexel College of Medicine.

Halle’s new post at the Tuskegee Institute involved providing medical care to 30 faculty and staff members and their families, as well as 450 students. In addition, she taught two classes a day. For all of this work, she was paid $600 a month and provided with room and board. But before she could practice medicine in the state of Alabama, Halle had to pass a grueling, lengthy examination. To prepare for the ordeal, Washington arranged for her to spend time studying under Montgomery physician Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette, one of the first licensed Black MDs in the state. A Black woman…

Olivia Campbell

New York Times bestselling author of WOMEN IN WHITE COATS. Bylines: The Atlantic, The Cut, Aeon, Smithsonian, Guardian. https://oliviacampbell.substack.com