Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Lylburn Clinton Downing (18 March 1889–25 May 1965), physician, was born in Danville and was the son of Lylburn Liggins Downing, a Presbyterian minister, and Lottie Jackson Clinton Downing. In 1894 the family moved to Roanoke, where his father served as pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church for more than forty years. Downing attended Biddle Normal and Preparatory School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in June 1907 received an A.B. from Biddle University (later Johnson C. Smith University). After graduating from Howard University's medical school with an M.D. in 1912, he remained in Washington, D.C., as an intern at nearby Freedmen's Hospital. Downing returned to Roanoke the following year and opened a medical practice. During World War I he served as a first lieutenant in the Medical Reserve Corps. On 20 August 1919 Downing married Helene Lucretia Clinton King, a Philadelphia resident who was among the first women to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. They had two sons and two daughters.

In 1914 one of Downing's colleagues, the physician and pharmacist Isaac David Burrell, fell ill and could not seek treatment in the local white hospitals. In desperate need of medical attention, he was forced to make a difficult train journey to the Freedmen's Hospital, where he died after undergoing surgery. The tragedy of Burrell's death underscored the need for a hospital in Roanoke to serve African Americans. Later that year Downing and other local physicians founded Medley Hospital, two rented rooms in a residence owned by Samuel Medley, a physician. The Medley family soon moved to allow use of the entire house by the hospital. Renamed Burrell Memorial Hospital, it moved to a larger residence, renovated with contributions from the Women's Auxiliary of the Burrell Memorial Hospital Association and the physicians' own fund-raising efforts. With Downing as its superintendent, the hospital opened for public inspection on 17 March 1915 and began admitting patients the following week. The facility included ten beds, an operating room, and a sterilizing room.

Downing spoke at a meeting of the Tidewater Medical Society in 1918 on strategies for establishing and operating hospitals for African Americans. He emphasized the use of modern equipment, an egalitarian approach to staff activity and organization, a modest number of beds initially, and no expense spared for the operating room. Downing believed hospitals should also train nurses, and from 1925 to 1934 the Burrell Memorial Training School for Nurses operated in conjunction with the hospital. His younger brother, Ellwood Davis Downing, served as staff dentist and as a dental instructor. The institution expanded after the city purchased the abandoned Allegheny Institute building in 1919 and leased it to the doctors with the provision that the hospital would make beds available to indigent black patients. Downing led the effort to raise $25,000 for improvements and installation of an elevator. In 1921 the renovated building became the new home of Burrell Memorial Hospital, the first black institution in the state to attain full approval from the American College of Surgeons.

During his more than three decades of superintendence, Downing took postgraduate courses in medicine and administration at the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Marquette University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He published several articles in national medical journals on topics such as treatments for liver diseases and gynecological problems, and he presented papers at National Hospital Association conferences on hospital administration. In 1932 Downing unsuccessfully sought election as president of the National Hospital Association. In 1955 he became one of the first African American physicians accepted as a member of the Roanoke Academy of Medicine. Also a member of the American College of Hospital Administrators, he served at various times as a vice president of the National Medical Association and as president of the Magic City Medical Society and of the Old Dominion Medical Society.

Downing retired as superintendent in 1947 but continued to work as chief of the hospital medical staff and of the surgery department until 1954. In the latter year he became a member of the city school board, and in 1958 he was appointed to the Virginia Advisory Committee of the President's Civil Rights Commission. Downing helped found the Young Men's Christian Association's local branch for African Americans and served as an elder of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church for forty-five years. In 1962 he received the William Alonza Warfield Award from the Association of Former Internes and Residents of Freedmen's Hospital, a group he had helped found in the 1920s. Lylburn Clinton Downing died in a Roanoke hospital on 25 May 1965 and was buried in C. C. Williams Memorial Park. Burrell Memorial Hospital was unprepared for desegregation and changes in federal funding. Suffering from low occupancy and financial problems, it went through numerous incarnations and operated as a nursing home until early in the 2000s. In 2003 Burrell Memorial Hospital was added to the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Thomas Yenser, ed., Who's Who in Colored America, 6th ed. (1944), 165 (with marriage date), and National Cyclopædia of American Biography (1891–1984), 53:50 (portrait); self-reported birth date and birthplace in World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards (1917–1918), Record Group 163, and World War II Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards (1942), Record Group 147, both National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; publications include Downing, "The Treatment of Alcoholic Cirrhosis of the Liver," New York Medical Journal 99 (1914): 1141–1143, "'The Pus Tube,'" Journal of the National Medical Association 11 (1919): 40–42, "Some Points on Developing a Hospital," ibid. 11 (1919): 95–98, and "Burrell Memorial Hospital," ibid. 22 (1930): 158–159; Washington Post, 7 June 1962; Neva Hart et al., Our Century of Caring: Reflections of Carilion's First 100 Years (1999), esp. 121–125; obituaries in Roanoke World-News, 25 May 1965, Roanoke Times and Washington Post, both 26 May 1965, and Norfolk Journal and Guide, 29 May 1965; editorial tribute in Roanoke World-News, 27 May 1965.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Kiesha Dian Green.

How to cite this page:
Kiesha Dian Green,"Lylburn Clinton Downing (1889–1965)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Downing_Lylburn_Clinton, accessed [today's date]).

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