Natalia M. Tanner
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Natalia M. Tanner


Private Practice and Children's Hospital of Michigan

Natalia M. Tanner

Natalia Murphy Tanner was born in Jackson, Mississippi on June 28, 1922 to Joseph Rush Tanner and Doris Murphy Tanner. Prior to her first birthday, she and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where her father began a private practice in medicine.

Dr. Tanner enjoyed a privileged childhood in Chicago, attending both the Fine Arts Academy of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Conservatory of Music. After graduating from Englewood High School in 1939, Dr. Tanner attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for two years. She then transferred to the University of Chicago, embarking on an accelerated program in pre-medicine. She transferred to Meharry Medical College after two years, from which she graduated in 1946.

Dr. Tanner continued her medical training with an internship at Harlem Hospital in New York City from 1946-1947 and a residency in pediatrics that began at the University of Chicago-the first African American accepted-and was completed at Meharry's Hubbard Hospital in 1950. In 1951, Dr. Tanner passed her boards in pediatrics and became the first board-certified African American pediatrician in Detroit. Her relocation was prompted by her marriage to Dr. Waldo Cain, a surgeon whose family was in Detroit.

After initially being denied an appointment at Children's Hospital of Detroit, Dr. Tanner entered private practice with Dr. John Lumpkin. She subsequently accepted a fellowship in pathology and hematology at Children's Hospital, but also chose to continue her private practice work. Throughout her career, Dr. Tanner was associated with both black-owned and -operated hospitals, as well as with majority institutions.

Her desire to continue the career in academic medicine she had started at Meharry and the University of Chicago became a reality in 1968 with an appointment at the Wayne State University School of Medicine and culminated with a full clinical professorship in 1992.

In 1951, Dr. Tanner became the first African American Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She also became the first female and first African American to serve as president of its Michigan chapter in 1983.

Dr. Tanner belongs to the Wayne County Medical Society, the Michigan State Medical Society, the National Medical Association, the Detroit Medical Society, the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, and the United Pediatric Society.

Her memberships and involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Episcopal church, as well as other community and civic organizations, began immediately after Dr. Tanner's arrival in Detroit.

Still practicing, Dr. Tanner's career and interests have shifted from general pediatrics to adolescent medicine.

Tape recorded interview;
Southfield, MI
29 May  1998
audio clip

Dr. Tanner discusses some of her professional experiences with Black hospitals in Detroit.

I: Did you ever consider working at the black proprietary hospitals, black-owned and black-operated hospitals?

R: Yes, I worked as the head or chairman or chief of the Department of Pediatrics.

I: At which ones?

R: I worked at Dr. [DeWitt] Burton's hospital, Burton Mercy [Hospital]. But now that's another thing. I didn't have any problem getting any of my hospital affiliations at the white hospitals when I came and I did not realize the significance of it. You see, I got my appointment at Children's [Hospital] first, then at Hutzel [Hospital].

I: When was this? 1951?

R: Nineteen fifty-one or 1952, yes. I got it because I had the qualifications. Then I was appointed at Hutzel Hospital. See, I didn't realize the significance of it. They said, "With a personal endorsement from the Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics." I didn't know what that meant.

I: It was Woman's then, right?

R: It was Woman's. Then at Harper [Hospital], the same thing happened to me and at Sinai and Grace [Hospitals]. See, I did not realize the racial impact of it because I had been in the situation where I was completely absorbed. This situation in Detroit was very traumatic for me, racially, when I came here. I had applied to the Detroit Pediatric Society. They kept my application for nine months and then told [me] that they had lost it. But I went to every meeting and then I said, "Just give me another application and I'll re-apply." When I was in Chicago, I became a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and I joined the Illinois chapter. When I came to Detroit, I was a transfer member. I went to this meeting [of the Michigan Chapter of the Academy of Pediatrics] and they never recognized me. They never recognized my presence at all! So, he [the chairperson] was about to adjourn the meeting and he said, "Is there any additional business?" I said, "Yes, there's some very important business." I stood up and said, "I think you have failed to recognize that I am a transfer member." He said, "Oh, this is an applicant." I said, "No, I am not an applicant. I am a full Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and I am a transfer member from the Illinois chapter."

I: And what was his reaction after that?

R: He said, "Oh, I am so sorry for the oversight." So, those were bitter experiences for me. But they knew not to bother me because I just said it's their problem and I'm going on with my program.

I: How did you come to work with the black hospitals in Detroit?

R: The black doctors were sending me patients. At that time, I was still interested in teaching so that I was doing conferences and lectures for them and I was very active in the Detroit Medical Society. I was at Children's Hospital, and I was the first black board-certified pediatrician that they had on their staff. When I first came to Children's Hospital, they wouldn't even let the student nurses on affiliation stay in the nurses' residence. They had to find rooms out in the city. Let me tell you this anecdote. The first time I had a private patient admitted to Children's Hospital, I told the admissions office, "Now, this is a private patient. This is Dr. Tanner and I am on the attending staff. This is a private patient. This patient is to go into the private ward, not with the clinic patients." This little black, female child was sitting up there with all the white kids. They were still segregating patients, but they subsequently changed through the years. When I was first at the Children's Hospital, they would look at my records. It was as if they were waiting for me to make a mistake.


William G. Anderson
Reginald P. Ayala
Arthur W Boddie
Wilma Brakefield-Caldwell
Henry C. Bryant Jr.
Alice Burton
Waldo L. Cain
James W. Collins
Claude and Vivienne Cooper
Gladys B. Dillard
George Gaines Jr.
Leon Gant
Herman J. Glass Sr.
Della Goodwin
Joseph B. Harris
Frank P. Iacobell
Horace L. Jefferson
Sidney B. Jenkins
Arthur Johnson
Rachel B. Keith
William E. Lawson
Josephine Love
Hayward Maben Jr.
Berna C. Mason
Suesetta T. McCree
Dorothy Mottley
David C. Northcross Jr.
Ophelia B. Northcross
Marjorie Peebles-Meyers
Frank P. Raiford III
Garther Roberson Jr.
S. L. Roberson
Elsie Smith
Fannie L. Starks
Lionel F. Swan
Natalia M. Tanner
Oretta Mae Todd
I. Clara Webb
Charles F. Whitten
Charles H. Wright
Watson Young


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Copyright , Kellogg African American Health Care Project, 2000.
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