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The Gainsboro History Project

Medicine in Gainsboro

The importance of Gainsboro as a medical center is marked by the many physicians, dentists, and nurses who spent their lives caring for members of Roanoke’s African American community at a time when health care was segregated.

Medical resources in Gainsboro and for the Black community were very limited before 1915. The ten Black doctors working in Roanoke between 1890 and 1913 treated thousands of patients, working within their own homes or making house calls. Denied treatment at Roanoke Hospital, Black patients often traveled hundreds of miles to hospitals that would admit them.

A landmark event in Gainsboro’s medical history was the founding of Burrell Memorial Hospital in 1915 by five prominent Black physicians. With the hospital’s opening, Gainsboro’s doctors gained access to well-equipped facilities, and the community’s residents were able to seek treatment in sterilized conditions close to home.

Black and white photo of Burrell Memorial Hospital. It has a highly semetrical design with a wrap-around awning. Nurses are pictured in all white dresses in the front of the hospital.
Burrell Memorial Hospital. Courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries

In the following decades, dozens of medical professionals worked in Gainsboro or were raised, educated, and trained there. Burrell Memorial Hospital employed and educated countless nurses during its operation, and Gainsboro’s doctors often simultaneously ran their practices and worked within the hospital. In addition to serving Gainsboro’s medical needs, these professionals were—and still are—avid participants in community life, serving as advocates for racial justice and the rights of the Gainsboro community.

A photo collage featuring 3 snapshots of medical staples in past Gainsboro.Photo of Dr. Harry Penn working on a patient's mouth in an old fashioned dentists chair. Another photo shows a man behind a counter in a drug store, and the last shows the exterior of the drug store with an old car out front.
Medical complex on Henry Street at Centre Ave NW. Dr. Harry T. Penn pictured right. Courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries

Another significant first in the Gainsboro community was the founding of the nation’s first African American Rescue Squad, the Hunton Life Saving Crew, which provided life-saving emergency services to anyone in need.

Urban Renewal

Although several medical professionals continue to serve Gainsboro residents, urban renewal completely changed the face of Gainsboro’s medical community. As former patients were forced to leave the area, doctors’ client base reduced drastically. Some lost their offices to urban renewal. Many left the neighborhood and continued their practices elsewhere. For decades, Burrell Memorial Hospital faced financial struggles and low bed occupancy rates until it finally closed in 1978.

See Also


Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare. (n.d.). Burrell Center history. Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.

Burrell Memorial Hospital Association, Inc. (1958, March 10). Minutes, held at the Gainsboro Library, 6:59pm to 8:00pm. [Document]. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.

Downing, L. C. (1930). Burrell Memorial Hospital, Roanoke, VA. Journal of the National Medical Association, 22(3), 158–159.

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