Skip to main content

The Gainsboro History Project

Dr. Lylburn C. Downing

Dr. Lylburn C. Downing (1889-1965)

Dr. Lylburn C. Downing was a Gainsboro physician and co-founder of Burrell Memorial Hospital, where he served as superintendent for 32 years. Additionally, he served on numerous civic, institutional, and nonprofit boards and was a church elder.

Dr. Downing was born in Danville, Virginia, March 18, 1889, the son of Rev. Dr. L.L. Downing and Lottie Jackson Clinton Downing, and brother of Dr. Ellwood Downing. The family moved to Roanoke in 1894. After graduating from Roanoke City Public Schools, Dr. Downing attended Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) and received his B.A. in 1907. He received his medical degree from Howard University in 1912, and in 1913 held an internship at Howard’s Freedmen’s Hospital.

Burrell Memorial Hospital and Medical Career

In 1915 Dr. Downing, along with four other prominent Roanoke physicians, founded Burrell Memorial Hospital. Downing served as the hospital’s first superintendent, a role which he held for the entirety of his 32 years at Burrell. During this time he also held the positions of chief of medical staff, chief surgeon, business manager, and trustee. He resigned from Burrell in 1946, and the hospital honored him by naming him Superintendent Emeritus.

During wartime Dr. Downing used his medical training to support the effort. Dr. Downing served as a first lieutenant in the Medical Reserve Corps in World War I and was a coordinator for the Roanoke Civilian Defense Council during World War II.

Dr. Downing was extremely active within the local and national medical community. Notably, he was the first African American doctor to become a member of the American College of Hospital Administrators and to be admitted to the Roanoke Academy of Medicine. He was the vice president for the National Hospital Association and the National Medical Association and was appointed by Governor Tuck to the Virginia State Hospital Advisory Council.

Additionally, Dr. Downing served as the president of several African American medical organizations: the Magic City Medical Society, the Old Dominion Medical Society, and the Association of Former Internes and Residents at Freeman’s Hospital in Washington. This last association granted Downing their Warfield Award in 1962.

Dr. Downing was also a medical advisor to the Hunton Life Saving Crew, the nation’s first African American rescue squad.

Additional Accomplishments

Dr. Downing was an active member of Roanoke’s African American community and had many additional accomplishments, including:

  • Roanoke City School Board Member
  • Member of Virginia Advisory Committee of the President’s Civil Rights Commission
  • Chairman of the Colored Citizens Committee
  • Trustee of the Virginia Cancer Foundation
  • Member of the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce
  • Member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Dr. Downing was also active in several civic organizations including Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the Freemasons, and the William A. Hunton YMCA. He also served as an elder at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Personal Life

Dr. Downing was married to Helene Downing and lived at 912 7th Street, NW. The couple had four children: Eloise Allen, Gloria Pope, Lylburn K. Downing, and Lewis C. Downing.

Dr. Downing died on May 24, 1965 and was buried in C. C. Williams Memorial Park.

See Also


The Downing brothers. (n.d.). The Roanoke Tribune. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.

Dr. Downing, hospital, civic leader, dies. (1965, May 26). The Roanoke Times.

Green, K. D. (2015). Lylburn Clinton Downing (1889-1965). Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Library of Virginia.

Half century of service: Dr. L.C. Downing, Va., medical leader, dies. (1965, June 5). New Journal and Guide, ProQuest.

Lee, Virginia Y. (n.d.). This is your life [Document]. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.