Skip to main content

Judson Dowling Papers

Identifier: MSS-1642

Scope and Contents

This collection contains several items relative to Dowling’s work at Public Health Officer for Birmingham, including a few manuscript minutes of 1922 Jefferson County Board of Health meetings, some correspondence from Dowling to Jefferson County officials, including H.S. Ward, Chairman of the Board of Health, copies of the pamphlets and brochures mentioned in the biographical note and several others, and a set of unsigned, undated notes, relative to Dowling’s relations with the Board of Health and local politicians, probably about the time he was forced to resign. These appear to have been written by his second wife, Fleta McWhorter Dowling. They refer, among others, to Dr Cabot Lull (Jefferson Co. Board of Health), Dr. Stuart Welch, Dr. James N. Baker (Alabama State Health Officer, 1930-41), Mrs. Horace Adams (Birmingham Community Chest), Dr. Alfred Walker (Chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Health), Dr. Mike Nolan , and Birmingham Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. Other material includes biographical items; draft versions of Dowling’s entries in Who’s Important in Medicine and the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, clippings of his obituary from the Birmingham Age-Herald, and numerous testimonials from prominent Birmingham residents and former Dowling co-workers. These last were collected and excerpted in a brochure, cited in the biographical note, which was composed to accompany a Judson Davie Dowling Memorial Lecture series. There are also two letters from L.C. Bulmer, former head of the Food and Dairy Inspection Bureau to Fleta McWhorter Dowling, and one draft reply, all April 1947.


  • 1921 - 1941

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations. Due to the nature of certain archival formats, including digital and audio-visual materials, access to certain materials may require additional advance notice.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers are responsible for using the materials in conformance with United States copyright law as well as any donor restrictions accompanying the materials. The user assumes all responsibility for identifying and satisfying any copyright claimants in collection materials. Copyright for official University records is held by The University of Alabama. The library claims only physical ownership of many manuscript collections. Anyone wishing to broadcast or publish this material must assume all responsibility for identifying and satisfying any claimants of literary property rights or copyrights. Please contact Special Collections ( with questions regarding specific manuscript collections. For more information about copyright policy, please visit: Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. Researchers are advised that the disclosure of certain information pertaining to identifiable living individuals without the consent of those individuals may have legal implications, for which the University of Alabama assumes no responsibility.

Biographical / Historical

Judson Davie Dowling was born on 30 April 1880 at Daleville in Dale County, Alabama, the son of Samuel Lawson (1841-1919) and Sarah Jane Windham Dowling. He attended public school in Ozark Alabama and following graduation worked as a telegrapher and train dispatcher in Alabama and Florida, during which time he read law. He was subsequently elected judge of the St. Augustine, Florida municipal court, but when financial circumstances permitted, abandoned the law to attend Birmingham Medical College (later the University of Alabama Medical College), graduating M.D. in 1910. He then served for two years as a resident physician at Hillman Hospital, Birmingham, in a similar capacity at Boston Lying-in Hospital in 1913 and Sloan Hospital, New York City in 1913-14, and as ship’s surgeon on the Atlas Steamship Line on routes between New York and South American cities. In 1914, however, he returned to Birmingham and entered private practice as an obstetrician. In 1917 he was appointed the city’s and Jefferson County’s first permanent public health officer, a post that he held until forced from it in 1941. Following his dismissal, he held the rank of senior surgeon in the U.S. Public Health Service, first as director of the 4th Civilian Defense Region and then as director of civilian health and sanitation in Arizona, followed by a brief stint as acting health director for New Mexico. He retired from the U.S. Public Health Service in 1944 and then served as superintendent of the Eastern State Hospital for Mental Diseases in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1945-46, dying of coronary thrombosis on 2 November of the latter year. Dowling’s greatest achievements occurred during his lengthy tenure as Birmingham/Jefferson County Public Health Officer. At the time of his appointment the city was among the most unhealthy in the country, with the highest death rates from typhoid fever and colitis nationwide, and lacking all basic health safeguards other than a pure water supply for parts of the city. As Dowling’s entry in the National Cyclopedia of American Biography states: “[t]here was no systematic control of communicable diseases, no provision for public health nursing and no inspection of milk and food supplies.”(35: 313) Dowling attacked this situation with creativity, determination, and courage. At the time of his appointment the public health staff in Jefferson County numbered 12; by the time he quit office it had grown to almost 200 and his department encompassed separate bureaus devoted to Food and Dairy Inspection, Sanitation, Communicable Diseases, Child Hygiene and Public Health Nursing, Dental Hygiene, Laboratories, and Health Education. Dowling’s success in coordinating the activities of these bureaus made him a much recognized and lauded figure nationally in the public health field, in which he was regarded as a pioneer in the application of effectual preventive medical techniques. The most notable accomplishments of his early years as public health officer were the sponsorship and implementation of a pure milk code (1921) and food code (1922), “both of which were adopted despite heavy opposition by political and selfish interests.”(Ibid., 313-14) Indeed, according to a testimonial brochure, Dowling’s efforts to confront Birmingham’s public health problems were “compounded by an uniformed public opinion, manifested in an acute and bitter political battle which waged [sic] during the first five or six years of his administration. This culminated in 1922 when as a result of his fearless and rigid enforcement of public health laws, Dr. Dowling was on the night of May 17 lured from his home near Roebuck Springs, taken to the Mount Pinson area, and severely flogged by a band of outlaws.”(“First Annual Lecture in Memory of Judson Davie Dowling, M.D.,” 6) The Rev. Henry M. Edmonds, pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, recollected that once Dowling “made up his mind he was impervious to opposition, proceeding as if inevitably in the direction of his decision. A case in point was when he was enforcing milk ordinances in the early days. He was lured away from his home one night, tied to a tree, beaten and left naked in the country. The next day he showed his back to the Board of Health and said to them: ‘Gentlemen, I am at your disposal. If it will further our work for me to resign, I am willing. If you prefer, I will continue.’(Ibid., 13) Continue he did, ultimately winning public opinion to his side in the struggle for pure milk and food. By 1923 that victory was manifest in the award of the Birmingham News Loving Cup by a committee composed of twelve civil and philanthropic leaders, in whose judgment Dowling had “rendered during the year the greatest substantial, material service to Birmingham, thereby adding most to the happiness, health, comfort, education, welfare or material prosperity of the whole community.”(“Program of Exercises: Presentation of the Birmingham News Loving Cup of 1923 to Dr. J.D. Dowling,” 27 January 1924, [4]) Nor was recognition of his achievement limited to the locality. Dowling’s milk and food codes subsequently “served as models for others throughout the United States, many public health officers later visiting Birmingham under grants from the Rockefeller Foundation to observe their operation.”(National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 35: 314) The Great Depression caused severe reductions in the Health Department’s budget, imperiling Dowling’s accomplishments. A “Study of the Adequacy of the Public Health Services in Birmingham and Jefferson County,” published by a locally-based Fact Finding and Social Research Committee, chaired by Dr. Paul Shankweiler of Birmingham Southern College unfavorably compared the city’s expenditures to that of other urban areas across the nation and, more tellingly, set forth the deterioration of public health between 1932 and 1932, as measured by growing mortality rates for typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and diarrhea and enteritis. “From 1917 to 1932,” the study summarized, “dramatically falling death rates accompanied” the Board of Health’s “growing national reputation,” but by the latter date, as a result of funding cutbacks, “Birmingham’s public health organization had been practically dismantled.” Despite these daunting circumstances, Dowling forged ahead. Indeed, the scope of his activities grew to encompass relief work and improving housing conditions in some of Birmingham’s worst neighborhoods. Under his auspices a comprehensive survey of twenty-two “blighted” neighborhoods, thirteen of them inhabited predominately by African-Americans, was carried out, resulting in a Final Statistical Report of Surveys of the Blighted Areas, Birmingham, Alabama, which revealed, among other things, that these neighborhoods comprised less than nine percent of the city’s geographical area, but contained almost a quarter of its houses. Not content merely to survey, Dowling also “personally designated four sites for clearance…on which low-cost housing projects were erected.” (National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 35: 314) Additionally, “under his direction the health department completed more than sixty projects which gave employment to thousands of persons” during the bleakest years of the depression.(Ibid.) As in the past, Dowling’s activities aroused the ire of several of Birmingham’s public and elected officials, among them Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and Dowling’s own boss, Dr. Alf Walker, Chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Health. These two men were ultimately instrumental in forcing Dowling’s resignation in August 1941, Connor having earlier demanded a survey of the Health Department, claiming that he was “not convinced that the department gets all it should out of a dollar.”(Birmingham News, 25 June 1941) Dowling served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the Spanish American War. Simultaneous to his service as Birmingham Public Health Officer, he was an instructor in public health at the University of Alabama and, from 1935 to 1941, director and chairman of the medical advisory committee of the Birmingham Visiting Nurses’ Association. His professional affiliations included the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the Association of Military Surgeons, the Alabama State Medical Association, the Southern Medical Society, the Jefferson County Medical Society, the Officers’ Association of the U.S. Public Health Service, and the Alabama Tuberculosis Association. Dowling was twice married, first to Lillian Alice Mackenzie (d. 1930) of Malagash, Nova Scotia, and second to Fleta Brindley McWhorter (1889-1958) of Birmingham. By his first wife he had three children, Judson Davie Dowling, Jr., Mary Mackenzie Dowling, and William Mackenzie Dowling. Note to researchers: the University of Alabama at Birmingham Archives has a small collection of Dowling material. An incomplete and unpublished study, History of Public Health in Jefferson County, done under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, was consulted by Weldon Cooper in the compilation of his Metropolitan County: A Survey of Government in the Birmingham Area and is listed by him as existing in typescript form in the files of the Birmingham Health Department.


0.2 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



The collection consists of materials relative to Dr. Judson Dowling’s activities as Birmingham, Alabama's first permanent Public Health Officer, 1917-1941, biographical materials about Dowling’s career, and materials concerning posthumous tributes and memorials to Dowling’s life and achievements.
Guide to Judson Dowling Papers
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections Repository

Box 870266
Tuscaloosa AL 35487-0266