The story of the first African-American Seventh-day Adventist to become a licensed physician
Dr. Charlotte (Lottie) Cornelia Isbell Blake served the church as a pioneering physician, hospital administrator, medical missionary, and teacher. The following story was adapted from a longer article in the online Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists (ESDA) at encyclopedia. adventist.org.
Lottie Isbell was born on June 10, 1876, to Thomas and Frances (Fannie) Isbell in Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.1
She was born in the home of her maternal grandfather, John Charles Diuguid who owned a blacksmith shop and the property adjacent to the Helm House where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to end the US Civil War.2 Lottie was the first of eleven children. Six of her siblings died in infancy: Sarah E., Charles, Faith, Hope, Ethel, and Gertrude E. Two of the four who survived into adulthood, Mamie Louise and Raymond David, did not reach age 30. The other two, Thomas Oscar and Veola Garry (Cox), like Lottie, experienced long lives.3
In pursuit of better economic opportunities and to escape the harsh challenges of post–Civil War violence and racial prejudice, the Isbells relocated to Columbus, Ohio, when Lottie was three years old. There Thomas worked as a carpenter, and Fannie worked as a seamstress while caring for their home and growing family.
The Isbells, who were devout Christians, helped establish the Union Grove Baptist Church in Columbus. Lottie remained Baptist until 1896 when, at age 20, she, her sister Mamie, and their mother joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church along with two of Lottie’s aunts.
Lottie had just completed a two-year teachers’ training course and was planning to teach in the same public schools in which she had been educated. However, her conversion launched her onto an extraordinary path of medical missionary service. Her new church family recognized her exceptional gifts and intellect, and she accepted their advice to study at the Adventist Nurses’ Training School at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.5
After enrolling in 1896, Lottie, along with other students, lived in the home of the well-known physician and head of Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg recognized Lottie’s potential and mentored her.6 When she completed the nursing program with the intent of becoming a missionary nurse somewhere in Africa, he guided her to study medicine at the American Medical Missionary College in Battle Creek (Adventism’s first medical school, a forerunner to Loma Linda University in California). Lottie followed his advice and graduated at the top of her class in 1902.7 Thus, she became the first African-American Seventh-day Adventist to become a degreed medical doctor.8
Entry into medical ministry
Dr. Kellogg advised Dr. Isbell to give up her aspirations for mission service in Africa and instead practice medicine and establish a sanitarium and nurses’ training center for blacks in the southern United States. Once again, she followed his advice. She accepted a call to serve as the director of the Rock City Sanitarium in Nashville, Tennessee, founded in 1901.9 The well-informed, sophisticated black community did not readily accept the natural remedies offered by Dr. Isbell. Theirs was an academic community, and they had become accustomed to what they felt were the more advanced approaches to medicine practiced at the Meharry Medical College, also located in Nashville. They labeled Dr. Isbell’s hydrotherapy disdainfully as “rag treatments.”10
In the face of this rejection, Dr. Isbell moved her treatment rooms to the Hillcrest community just north of Nashville, hoping the rural population would be more receptive to her natural approaches to medicine. Instead, she met the same resistance as her white male counterpart, Dr. Louis A. Hansen, who offered natural remedies to white populations in the Nashville area. Nevertheless, Dr. Isbell’s labor was not in vain. Her Rock City Sanitarium was the forerunner of the Riverside Sanitarium and Hospital, the first black Seventh-day Adventist medical facility in that region. Nellie H. Druillard, whose leadership and philanthropy brought new life to the institution in 1927, turned it over to the General Conference in 1935. It was expanded into a modern hospital that first served black residents and later all residents of the Nashville metropolitan area until its closing in 1983.11
In 1903, because of the resistance and the fact that she was not able to establish a nursing school for blacks in Nashville, Dr. Isbell accepted a call to Alabama to serve as resident physician at the Oakwood Manual Training School (now Oakwood University) near Huntsville. An epidemic had broken out among the orphans who resided at the Oakwood school, and Dr. Isbell made the seriously ill children her immediate priority. She also served in treatment rooms run by a former Battle Creek nursing school classmate in Birmingham, 101 miles (162.5 kilometers) from Huntsville.12
In 1905, Dr. Isbell realized a long-cherished dream when she opened a nurses’ training program at Oakwood that has continued to the present.13 She is recognized as the first black teacher and the first with a terminal, doctoral-level degree to serve at Oakwood.14
Dr. Isbell’s initiation into the medical profession would likely have been too challenging for a less determined individual. One author, who characterized her as born to triumph, shared an incident that attests to her tenacity and resilience:
“At the turn of the century in the deep South, a radiant, confident, brown-skinned young lady of 28 years enters a room filled with all white males. A crushing silence descends. Without acknowledging their stares, Dr. Lottie Isbell, a practicing physician for 2 years, takes her seat and begins to write her exam. Once the men overcome their shock of seeing a Black woman physician, they make every effort to let her know she is [not] welcome. She is treated like an alien from outerspace. No one dares sit beside her or utter a word to her.
“The next morning the proctor announces that Dr. Lottie Isbell scored a perfect paper. Suddenly, the doctors rush to her desk and each one tries to sit as close to the brilliant young physician as possible. The doctors openly copy her answers word for [word]. The year was 1904. Dr. Lottie Isbell had scored another triumph. She was now a licensed physician for the State of Alabama."
Balancing medicine, mission work, and family
It was during these career-formative years that Dr. Isbell met Pastor David Emanuel Blake. Born in Jamaica on August 24, 1877, he became a Seventh-day Adventist in 1901 and immigrated to South Lancaster, Massachusetts, to study for pastoral ministry at the South Lancaster Academy (later Atlantic Union College). Upon graduation, he entered the ministry in Florida in 1905,16 and he and Charlotte were united in marriage on September 18, 1907.17
With encouragement from church leaders, the new couple moved to Nashville, where Lottie re-established the Rock City Sanitarium and David pastored a church while studying medicine at the Meharry Medical College. Additionally, David served with Lottie, who had been convinced to reopen treatment rooms for natural remedies at the sanitarium. They worked there until 1912, when David graduated from Meharry as a physician. Upon his graduation, the Blake family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where David organized a small group of believers into what grew into the current Columbus Ephesus Church, and both he and Lottie practiced medicine.18
Although life in Columbus was comfortable, the Blakes accepted a call to the mission field. In early 1913, David left Columbus to begin mission work in Panama and establish a home for his young family in the town of Empire.19 By that time, the Blakes had three daughters, Frances Elizabeth, Sarah Katherine, and Marcia Louise. Later that same year, Lottie and the girls joined David, and soon after, their fourth daughter, Alice Evelyn, was born. Four years later, their fifth child, a son, David, was also born in Panama. For the next four years, the two physicians served as self-supporting medical missionaries in the Canal Zone, Panama. David practiced medicine and engaged in evangelism from the small church they raised up, and Lottie practiced medicine while devoting most of her time to the care and education of their five children. For a while, Lottie also taught the children of several wealthy families in her little school.20
Just after the only hospital in Colón closed due to the completion of the canal in 1913, the Blakes secured a lease on 12 rooms for their medical work in a large building in Cristóbal, the American settlement adjacent to Colón. Then they acquired much-needed medical equipment through the Isthmian Canal Commission from that same hospital closing.21 The needs for medical care were great, and the Blakes’ services were well received. However, because conditions in Panama took a toll on the family’s health, with all members suffering from malaria at some point, they decided to move to another location.
The Blakes next went to serve in Port au Prince, Haiti, where they were again well received in providing medical care while raising up another church.22 However, with five children to care for, they soon were no longer financially able to sustain their ministries. In May 1916, General Conference leaders responded to their plight and sought to encourage the physician team in their self-supporting work with their vote of an appropriation of $200 for church and school buildings and a grant-in-aid of $150 to Dr. David Blake for establishing mission work in Cape Haitien.23 Soon, though, due to public agitation from revolutions and the US Marine Corps occupation of the nation, and finally, more bouts with malaria, the Blakes moved their family to Charlestown, West Virginia, to establish another medical practice for the two.24
Their plan was to work in Charlestown for a while and then go to South America. However, this was not to be. Before they could begin work in Charlestown, David suffered a severe chill after venturing into the cold rain, developed pneumonia, and died one week later on October 31, 1917. Lottie was left to raise the five children and carry on the medical work alone.
After struggling for several months to provide for her children, Dr. Blake applied for and, on April 28, 1918, was granted eight dollars per week in temporary sustentation funds from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. At that time, the four children for whom she was most concerned were ages 3, 6, 8, and 10. Alice, age 5, had gone to live in Pennsylvania with a Seventh-day Adventist aunt. The other four children were taken to live with other family members. To Dr. Blake’s chagrin, these family members, who had been practicing Seventh-day Adventists, had become vexed by newly imposed segregation policies or practices in Adventist congregations and had left the church. Although Dr. Blake experienced some of the same vexations, she remained loyal to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and was adamant that her children be raised Adventist.25
In her application for sustentation, Dr. Blake indicated the family had no home of their own. She declared: “My children are now with my parents, not Adventists. I hope to secure such help that I can have them under my supervision and yet be free to do enough medical work to support, as soon as possible.”26
In 1920, Dr. Blake returned to full-time medical practice in Charlestown, West Virginia, and remained there for five years. At the end of this period, she moved back to Columbus, where she reunited with her children and practiced medicine for 15 years.27
Finally, Dr. Blake moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she practiced medicine from 1935 to 1957.28 For a portion of that time, she partnered with Dr. Stark O. Cherry before his death in 1945.29 She continued the practice alone and specialized in women’s and children’s medicine. However, she is acclaimed in the medical world for her discovery of a cure for “Smokey City” pneumonia, a serious respiratory illness caused by the polluted air that was characteristic of Pittsburgh and other large cities at that time.30
Retirement and final years
Dr. Blake retired at the age of 81 and was honored by the American Medical Association for more than 50 years of medical practice.31 Throughout her lifetime of professional service, she maintained faithful service to the local church as choir director, treasurer, and Sabbath School teacher. She continued her ministry even in her retirement years by giving Bible studies and distributing religious literature. Toward the end of her life, she settled with her daughter Alice Evelyn Blake Brantley in Huntsville, Alabama, and died there on November 16, 1976, at the age of 100.32
Dr. Charlotte Isbell Blake left a legacy of faith, loyalty, stamina, professionalism, intellectual prowess, and humility to her church and her family. Her legacy is evidenced through her many relatives and mentees who were inspired by her service and have themselves given their gifts and talents to the church as medical professionals, missionaries, educators, and church leaders.
1. “Lottie Cornelia Isbell Blake,” obituary, Southern Tidings, March 1977, 26.
2. Rebecca Onion, “The Original Draft of Grant’s Surrender Terms at Appomattox,” Slate, April 6, 2015, https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/04/surrender-at-appomattox-grants-surrender-terms-drafted-by-ely-parker.html.
3. Social Security Administration, Washington DC, USA; Social Security Death Index, Master File, accessed June 28, 2020, Ancestry.com; “Thomas Edward Isbell,” Find A Grave, accessed June 28, 2020, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/175439360/thomas-edward-isbell.
4. Stephanie D. Johnson, “Dr. Lottie Isbell Blake: Dean of Black SDA Physicians,” North American Regional Voice, March 1987, 2, 3.
5. Annual Report of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and Hospital, 1910–1911,” 209, accessed June 28, 2020.
6. Jannith L. Lewis, “Five Notable Women in the History of Oakwood College,” Adventist Heritage 17, no. 1 (March 1996): 56.
7. “American Medical Missionary College, Class of 1902,” Loma Linda University digital archives, accessed June 28, 2020, https://cdm.llu.edu/digital/collection/ammc/id/4/rec/2.
8. Louis B. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Seventh-day Adventists With an African Heritage (Washington, DC: Review and Herald®, 1984), 137.
9. Lucas L. Johnson II, “First Black Seventh-day Adventist Medical Facility Receives Historical Marker,” Southern Tidings, December 2018, 40.
10. DeWitt S. Williams, Precious Memories of Missionaries of Color: A Compilation Stories and Experiences of Ambassadors for God!, vol. 2 (TEACH Services, 2015), 48.
11. Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, 2nd rev. ed. (1996), s.v. “Riverside Hospital.”
12. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow, 139.
13. Lewis, “Five Notable Women,” 56.
14. Benjamin J. Baker, compiler, A Place Called Oakwood: Inspired Counsel, A Comprehensive Compilation of Ellen G. White Statements on the Oakwood Educational Institution (Huntsville, AL: Oakwood College, 2007), vii.
15. Johnson, “Dr. Lottie Isbell Blake,” 2.
16. T. M. French, “Dr. David Emanuel Blake,” obituary, Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, November 29, 1917, 22.
17. Alabama, County Marriage Records (1805–1967), Ancestry.com., accessed June 28, 2020, https://search.ancestry.com.
18. “The Outlook,” Gospel Herald, February 1908, 6.
19. J. F. Crichlow, “Nashville, Tennessee,” Gospel Herald, February 13, 1913, 8.
20. Williams, Precious Memories, 48–53.
21. David E. Blake, “A Year on the Canal Zone,” Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, January 15, 1914, 12.
22. Margaret E. Preiger, “Haiti, The Island of Revolution,” Lifeboat, August 1916, 235.
23. General Conference Committee minutes, May 11, 1916, 423.
24. Williams, Precious Memories, 51.
25. Paul S. Brantley and Charlotte Brantley Holmes, interview by author, 2019.
26. “Lottie Blake Sustentation Application,” April 28, 1918, GCA, RG 33.
27. “Lottie Blake to W. T. Knox,” November 24, 1919, Lottie Blake Sustentation File.
28. Williams, Precious Memories, 51.
29. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow, 140.
30. Williams, Precious Memories, 51.
31. Williams, 51.
32. Seventh-day Adventist Yearbooks, 1905–1919, https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/Forms/AllItems.aspx; Paul S. Brantley and Charlotte Brantley Holmes interview.