Wednesday, 30 September 2015


           BLACK    SOCIAL   HISTORY                                                                                                                    

Mary E. Britton

Mary Ellen Britton
Lexington, Kentucky, US
Died1925 (aged 69–70)
Lexington, Kentucky, US
NationalityUnited States
Known forFirst African-American female physician in Lexington, Kentucky
Medical career
Mary Ellen Britton (1855–1925) was an African-American physician, educator, journalist and civil rights activist from Lexington, Kentucky. Britton was an original member of the Kentucky Negro Education Association, which formed in 1877. She was president of the Lexington Woman's Improvement Club, and later served as a charter member of the Ladies Orphan Society which founded the Colored Orphan Industrial Home in Lexington, in 1892. During her lifetime she accomplished many things through the obstacles she faced. After teaching black children in Lexington public schools, she worked as a doctor from her home in Lexington. She specialized in hydrotherapyelectrotherapy and massage; and, she was officially granted her license to practice medicine in Lexington, Kentuckyin 1902.

Background and early life[edit]

Mary Ellen Britton was born as a free person of color in 1858. She was one of seven children of Laura and Henry Britton who lived on Mill Street, somewhere between Second and Third Streets[1] which is now in the Gratz Park Historical District of Lexington, Kentucky. Contrary to the limited opportunities many other African-Americans of the time were allowed, she and her siblings—Julia, Susan J., Hattie, Josiah, Robert, and William—acquired a classical education. Her father Henry was a freeborn carpenter (born around 1824) who later became a barber in Berea. Her mother, Laura, was a gifted singer and musician who had been well-educated under the protection of her mother who was an enslaved mistress to Kentucky statesman Thomas F. Marshall. She had been emancipated at the age of sixteen.[2]
At a young age Britton was offered the best education possible for African American children in that time - attending private schools created out of subscriptions from Lexington's African-American professional class. In 1859, along with older sister Julia Britton Hooks (later known as a gifted musician and educator, as well as Berea's first African American teacher), Britton attended a branch school in Lexington started by Mr. William H. Gibson of Louisville, Kentucky.[3] The family later moved to Berea, Kentucky where Laura Britton was hired as a matron at Berea College.[2]
From 1871 to 1874, she attended Berea College, the first institution of higher learning to admit blacks in the state of Kentucky. At the time the only profession offered to an educated woman of any race was teaching. After the death of her parents, Britton left Berea in order to seek employment. She taught in the Lexington School System beginning around 1876[4] and ending in August 1897.

Professional career

After leaving Berea, Britton taught in several schools in central Kentucky and advocated for the improvement of pedagogy in African-American schools. Her paper entitled "Literary Culture of the Teacher" was presented at the second meeting of the Kentucky Negro Education Association in Louisville in 1879. In 1894 she presented "History and Science of Teaching" before the American Association of Educators of Colored Youth in Baltimore, Maryland.[2]
She worked at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan and learned about hydrotherapyphototherapythermotherapyelectrotherapy and mechanotherapy—the strategies and health principles advocated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She attended classes there with the American Medical Missionary College and took classes in Chicago, graduating in 1903. She was the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in Lexington, Kentucky.[2]
Her writings on moral and social reform can be found in local newspapers such as the Lexington American Citizen and the Lexington Daily Transcript—she wrote a regular women's column in the Lexington Herald. She also wrote for the Cleveland Gazette, the Indianapolis World, the Baltimore Ivy and the American Catholic Tribune in Cincinnati.[2]

Other accomplishments and attributions

Britton was an original member of the Kentucky Negro Education Association which was formed in 1877 to improve schools for African-American children and to make statewide changes through legislative action.[5] She was also President of the Lexington Woman's Improvement Club. The initial goal for this club was the "elevation of women, the enriching and betterment of home, and the encitement of proper pride and interest in race."[6] Britton served as a charter member of the Ladies Orphans Society, which founded the Colored Orphan Industrial Home in Lexington in 1892. This organization provided food, shelter, education and training to destitute orphans and elderly, homeless women.[7]


Britton never married or had children. She died in 1925 and gave her library to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.[2]