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Davis Brothers

A.J. Wright, University of Alabama at Birmingham
John Daniel Sinkler Davis (1859-1931) and William Elias Brownlee Davis (1863-1903) were significant medical figures in Alabama during the late nineteenth century. They founded the state's first medical journal and the largest private infirmary in the South. William served as president of several medical organizations and both brothers helped establish the Birmingham Medical College. William's specialty was gynecology, but he also did research on liver and bile-duct function and pathology. John was a surgeon and also an officer in medical societies. He served as president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama three years before his death. The brothers helped organize the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association, which continues today as the Southern Surgical Association.
John Daniel Sinkler Davis was born on January 18, 1859, and William Davis was born on November 25, 1863, in Trussville, Jefferson County. Their father, Elias Davis, also a physician, served as a Confederate officer and was killed by a Union sniper in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864. His widow, Rhoda Georgia Anne, raised the boys on her own. Both John and William pursued medical degrees, like their father and paternal grandfather before them. Tutors and one year of school in Montevallo provided John with his pre-medical education. He graduated from the Medical College of Georgia in 1879 and returned home to set up a rural private practice. William earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama and then studied medicine at Vanderbilt University and the University of Louisville. He finally graduated from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City in 1884.
Prior to William's graduation, John had moved his practice to the new and booming city of Birmingham. His younger brother joined him in 1884, and the siblings began two decades of medical achievements involving clinical work, research, and education. One of their earliest projects was a professional journal: the Alabama Medical and Surgical Journal, first published in July 1886. Both brothers were listed as the editors, with John first. Their journal was the first medical periodical in Alabama. In November 1886, the offices of the journal hosted the organizational meeting of the Alabama Surgical and Gynecological Association. Henry N. Rosser was named temporary president and William the secretary. The following month, 50 Alabama doctors were invited to a more formal meeting, and 12 prominent surgeons from outside the state were named honorary members.
William spent time studying at surgical clinics in London, Berlin, and Vienna during the first half of 1887 and gained a much broader medical education than most Alabama doctors. It is unclear how he financed all this education and travel. Also during this time, the brothers became engaged in a conflict with a very powerful Alabama physician, Jerome Cochran, over their editorial calling for state-level examinations for all candidates for medical certification. Cochran wanted to keep the current system, which allowed county boards to examine candidates as well. The state medical society voted to support Cochran's position; by 1907, however, the society became responsible for all examinations. Additionally, the journal failed to gather much support during its 11 months of existence and ceased publication in May 1887.
William returned from Europe in July 1887, and the brothers again got into conflict with Cochran. He believed that the new specialty group would compete with the state medical society and opposed it in letters to colleagues and a word-of-mouth campaign. Support for the Davis group disappeared among physicians, and the brothers realized they needed to organize a regionally focused group, since the honorary members admitted to the state society could not vote. The Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association was organized in fall 1887, with William installed as secretary and John as chair of the Arrangements Committee. The first annual meeting took place in Birmingham at the YMCA Hall from December 4-6, 1888. Forty-one members and more than 50 visitors attended. A prominent Virginia doctor, Hunter Holmes McGuire, could not attend but agreed to serve as president, giving the new group instant credibility around the South.
In 1889, the brothers embarked upon experimental research in surgical techniques on the abdominal cavity using dogs. William published several articles related to the surgical treatment of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal membrane. This work was extended to humans in the closure of gunshot and knife wounds and became important advances in surgery that would eventually gain them national recognition. William published a number of articles on this and other topics. John also published on this work as well as on his research on blood transfusions.
In 1892 and 1893, William spent several months at the Holmes Sanitarium for Diseases of Women in Rome, Georgia. Using the well-known private facility as a model, the brothers opened the Davis and Davis Private Infirmary for female diseases and surgical cases in 1894. One area of their gynecological research studied the effects of ovary removal on levels of estrogen, the main female sex hormone. That same year, the Davis brothers were two of the nine physicians who founded the Birmingham Medical College, which opened on October 1 in a former hotel. John was married on July 15, 1897, to Birmingham writer Margaret Elizabeth O'Brien; she died in April 1898. On August 12, 1897, William married local schoolteacher Gertrude Mustin; the couple would have two daughters.
In 1902, the infirmary moved to a new four-story building in the same block where Hillman Hospital would open the following year. John taught surgery and William taught gynecology and abdominal surgery. Being a private institution, the school's financing was largely dependent on student fees, which were never enough to develop its resources compared to the state-supported medical schools in other states. Despite improvements in facilities and changes in governance, the Birmingham Medical College graduated its final class in May 1915.
William was killed in an accident at a railroad crossing in Birmingham on February 24, 1903. In a long article published in the Alabama Medical Journal, Lt. Gov. Russell McWhorter Cunningham memorialized his friend and Birmingham Medical College colleague. At the time of Davis' death, Cunningham was in the midst of his term as the state's first lieutenant governor since the office's abolition in 1875. Sculptor Giuseppe Moretti was commissioned to create a large bronze statue of Davis, which stands today on the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine campus in front of the former Hillman Hospital buildings on 20th Street. During his career, William had served as chair of the American Medical Association's Section on Surgery in 1890, president of the Tri-State Medical Society of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee in 1891, president of the American Obstetrical and Gynecological Association in 1901, and president of the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association in 1902.
In July 1903, when Hillman Hospital opened as the culmination of work begun in the mid-1880s by the Society of United Charities, John Davis and another surgeon Lewis Morris provided funds needed to furnish the two operating rooms. John served as president of MASA in 1928. He proposed forming a committee to discuss with the University of Alabama president and trustees the possibility of a state-supported four-year medical school. Davis was among many people suggesting such a school, which finally opened in Birmingham in September 1946 and is now the UAB School of Medicine.
John D.S. Davis died on May 16, 1931. Like his brother, he had also served in other medical organizations. These included vice-president of both the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association, in 1904, and the American Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology, in 1907. Both brothers as well their spouses are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham.

Additional Resources

Bland, Kirby I. "The Founding Fathers vs Jerome Cochran: Organization and Development of the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association in Birmingham." Journal of the American College of Surgeons 226 (April 2018): 696-713.
Carmichael, Emmett B. William Elias Brownlee Davis: Surgeon-Teacher-Organizer. Alabama Journal of the Medical Sciences 3(April 1966): 224-229.
Cunningham, Russell M. Dr. W.E.B. Davis as a Man, as a Citizen, as a Physician, as a Surgeon and as a Friend. Alabama Medical Journal 15 (December-January 1902-3): 181-88.
Holley, Howard L. The History of Medicine in Alabama. Birmingham: University of Alabama School of Medicine, 1982.
Moore, Robert M. "The Davis Brothers of Birmingham and the Southern Surgical and Gynecological Association." Annals of Surgery 157 (May 1963): 657-69.
Published:  October 22, 2018   |   Last updated:  October 22, 2018