A third-generation Black physician reflects on his work; the push to build diversity in Wichita’s medical community
Dr. Val Brown, Jr. talks about being a third-generation physician and one of the first Black doctors to graduate from the KU School of Medicine in Wichita.
Of the one thousand doctors in the Medical Society of Sedgwick County, only 33 are Black. That's why the society started the Brown Family Fund, an effort to recruit and retain more Black doctors in Wichita. Dr. Val Brown Junior, a third-generation physician and one of the first Black doctors to graduate from the KU School of Medicine in Wichita. He's excited the funding will help Black physicians in a vocation that began in his own family in the 1940s.
Your grandfather was a doctor, your dad was a doctor. What made you decide to go into medicine?
Well, [my] grandfather died when my dad was just an infant. He was in my grandmother's arms, literally, it happened, during a volleyball tournament. And he had sudden death, probably sudden cardiac death. My dad was born in Wichita at a house at 1357 North Indiana. That house has been demolished since then. It was right across the street from McAdams Park next door to Jackson Mortuary. Dad was raised with the expectation that he would become a doctor. He was called "Little Doc." I didn't have similar pressures on me. They did not express a desire for me to go into any particular profession. They just wanted me to be smart. They wanted me to be good. They wanted me to study hard and then let me choose my own path.
Watching your father practice medicine, did that have any influence?
Absolutely. When I was just a little guy, he would put me in his 1965 Volvo and take me to home visits. He made house calls. Now, I couldn't go in because of, confidentiality, but I remember sitting there in the car and waiting for him and wondering, "What are they doing in there?" And soon he would come back. And I have met so many people, since then who said, I remember your dad came to my house and he treated all of us kids. And there was never the expectation that he would be paid. And in most cases, he was not paid. Going to the hospital, making hospital rounds, that was a daily thing, seven days a week. He visited every patient that he had at Wesley. Every patient that he had at St. Francis. And I remember on Sunday, he would come to church late, he'd come in just before the sermon, just before the offering, here comes Dad. He's finished his rounds. And then he would sit down and listen to the sermon, and then we would go out to dinner.
The majority of your Dad's patients were Black. Dr. Brown, Sr. was their first and only doctor for many African Americans in his early years of practice.
Yes, it was quite different in the 1940s and fifties. I think he was the first to get privileges to admit patients to Wesley. He could admit to St. Francis, but needless to say, in those days, the vast, vast majority, I assume, of his patients were most likely Black. He was the Black doctor and that's who the Black patients went to. He already had somewhat of a reputation when he came to town. So, everybody wanted to go and see Dr. Brown. The ladies said, "Boy, there's a good-looking doctor in town and you know, he's got an office down there on Cleveland."
I know your father and grandfather went to Howard University. You attended the University of Kansas, and you were one of two African Americans to graduate at that time.
At the Wichita branch. I was one of two that transferred from Kansas City. Everybody had to do their basic science in those days at Kansas City, but you had the option of doing your clinical training at Kansas City or Wichita and Cynthia Turner — now Cynthia Turner Graham — and we both came back to Wichita to do our basic science. I didn't really realize until recently, until the Medical Society informed me, that I was one of two of the earliest of the first graduates of the University of Kansas School of Medicine Wichita in 1979.
You came back and became a doctor, and so you practiced with your father?
Yes. We went into practice together. He had a well-established practice at 1802 North Hydraulic. And, I said, "So Dad, you're gonna give me some patients?" And he said, "Heck, no, you get your own patients!"
But then too, once I finally had my credentials, I had, finished my residency, I'm getting ready to start practice. Dad said, "Me and your mama we're going on a cruise." So I had the entire office and I had to manage his patients both in the office and in the hospital. It was the best experience I could have had because I could not rely upon him, and he knew. I would've said, "Dad, what do I do about this? What do I do about that? You know?" And when he came back, he said, "So how'd it go?" I said, "It went just fine." He said, "Well, you're internal medicine trained. You should have done, okay. All my patients are adults. You should have done just fine." I said, "Dad, yeah, everything happened just fine. Just fine."
The Medical Society of Sedgwick County now has the Brown Family Fund for Black physician recruitment and is focused on recruiting and retaining more Black physicians in Wichita. And the society has donated $10,000 toward this effort. What are your thoughts about that?
I think it is really fantastic. Wichita is kind of, and Sedgwick County, it's kind of a unique community. You know, we've had two Black mayors. We had a Black police chief, our fire chief was Black. We've had Black senators, the new president of the Medical Society is an African American, Dr. Maurice Duggins, in January. There's an opportunity here. All you have to do is apply yourself. And sometimes it's what you know, sometimes it's who you know. And I don't play Wichita cheap at all. And I think that we know we're smart enough. For years, we were told we weren't smart enough. We were told you're not even smart enough to be the quarterback and now look what happened at all levels. We are achieving Sedgwick County Medical Society is opening the door. We need to step through.
Out of the one thousand members in the Medical Society of Sedgwick County, there are about 33 Black doctors.
Yes and you know, we have had some, really high-powered medical specialists, who came through here. We had a general surgeon. He was excellent. I consulted him on every surgical case. We had a neurosurgeon, a brain surgeon, a Black guy. We had a cardiologist who was so smart that he moved on and now he's running the show down in Arizona. Unfortunately, well, I think it's a matter of size. Wichita has been a springboard for African Americans. In other words, we were one step in somebody's goal of achieving what they needed to achieve.
So many of the heavies that have left here, they got, they reached that glass ceiling within their subspecialty. So, the only choice they had was to move on because the leadership in the medical community here is very well established. And there's nothing wrong with that. But for a young, up-and-coming cardiologist, brain surgeon, general surgeon, you know, those kinds of things, are a little bit difficult.
Dr. Brown, you haven't officially, completely retired, right?
Well, I closed my private practice in 2016. I was in solo practice, St. Francis Medical Park from 2001 to 2016. That was the longest that I had been in one location. I kind of I continued to do emergency room work and also worked at the Center For Health and Wellness, now known as Health Core. For a while, I commuted from Wichita to Emporia. I now work in occupational health, occupational medicine — it is a branch of Ascension Via Christi. And what I do is I see injured workers from all of the trades, from all of the factories. We see Amazon injured workers, the police, the firefighters, nurses — when their injuries do not require hospitalization frequently, they will come to us. I do it semi-full-time and I just love it.
What is the best part of being a doctor?
The best part of being a doctor is that you feel like you have some control over your future. Now, you really don't, because it's all a blessing from God. And I realize, you know, that but for the grace of God go, I. So, I don't belittle anybody. I don't belittle anybody's appearance. I don't belittle their lifestyle. You know, I think all creatures great and small, have a place in this world. We are all loved by our creator, but I have just had a tremendous amount of joy following in my father's footsteps and realizing that I think that's what I was meant to do.