Cornelius N. Dorsette, MD

Cornelius Dorsette.

Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette, MD, a member of the class of 1882, was the second African American to receive a degree from UB.

He is often identified as the first licensed or certified Black physician in Alabama. He maintained a long-time practice in Montgomery County, where he spent the majority of his life. 

Born into slavery in North Carolina, Dorsette was separated from his mother when he was two months old. He was raised by his grandmother and attended the Hampton Institute, a Virginia college for freed slaves founded in 1868, where he was a classmate of Booker T. Washington — founder of what is now Tuskegee University. Dorsette graduated from Hampton in 1878.

Dorsette studied Latin and entered Syracuse University’s medical school, but he was forced to drop out due to poor health. After he recovered, Dorsette applied to the medical school at the University of the City of New York. He was not admitted due to his race but was accepted to medical school here at the University at Buffalo; in 1882 he became the second Black graduate.

Over the next two years, Dorsette worked in various medical positions in New York, and in early 1883 Dorsette began efforts to locate elsewhere. He contacted his friend Booker T. Washington for advice; he urged Dorsette to relocate to Montgomery, Alabama.

Under the Alabama Medical Practice Act of 1877, candidates had to sit for a six-day examination by either a county board or the state board of medical examiners in Montgomery. All members of such boards were white male physicians. Dorsette’s performance was judged harshly by them, but he passed and was licensed.

Dorsette used his knowledge of vaccines to limit the scope of a smallpox epidemic in central Alabama. In 1891 he tutored Halle Tanner Dillon, a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Washington had recruited her to become the staff physician at Tuskegee. She went on to become both the first Black woman to take the exam and the first woman to pass the test in the state.

In addition to his successful medical practice, Dorsette owned an office building, operated a drug store and established the state’s first hospital for Black people. He helped organize the National Medical Association for Black physicians and was a trustee at Tuskegee Institute. He was Washington’s physician and often was mentioned by Washington in speeches as an example of Black perseverance.

Dorsette died on December 7, 1897. His funeral procession was said to be the largest ever held in Montgomery for a Black citizen up to that time.