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The Gainsboro History Project

Founding Doctors of Burrell Memorial Hospital

Founding and Impact

The founding physicians of Burrell Memorial Hospital were Dr. John B. Claytor, Dr. Lylburn C. Downing, Dr. James H. Roberts, Dr. Shadrach F. Williman, Dr. Jerry S. Cooper, and Dr. Isaac D. Burrell. Dr. Burrell died in 1914, one year before the hospital’s opening, and his five peers named the hospital in his memory.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, there were 11,000 African Americans living in the Roanoke Valley and only ten Black doctors to treat them. When necessary, physicians performed surgeries at the homes of their patients, sterilizing these environments to the best of their abilities; however, in many cases, patients had to travel hundreds of miles to seek treatment from hospitals that would admit African Americans.

In 1913 Dr. Williman, Dr. Roberts, and Dr. Downing performed the first major surgery by Black physicians in Southwest Virginia, operating within the patient’s home at 200 Patton Avenue, NW. The surgery was successful, however local African American physicians wanted access to dedicated surgical facilities for Black doctors and patients in the Roanoke area.

They opened Burrell Memorial Hospital in 1916, named in memory of Dr. Isaac Burrell, who had died tragically the year before after being forced to travel 240 miles to a hospital that accepted African American patients for surgery.

See Also


Blanton, A. & Ferrance, D.  (2003). Burrell Memorial Hospital. National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Roanoke, VA, National Register, VDHR #128-5863.

Chittum, M. (2017, August). Death of doctor led to hospital. Discover Magazine, The Roanoke Times .

Cox, Ray. (2016, May 2). Readers share memories and an old photo. The Roanoke Times

Pollitt, P. A. (2016). African American and Cherokee nurses in Appalachia: A History, 1900–1965. McFarland & Company, Inc.

Shareef, R. (1996). The Roanoke Valley’s African American Heritage: A Pictorial History. The Donning Company.