12.19.2016 Back to News

Methodist Memories: Chief Pharmacist Lillian Dorsey

Prior to the late 1930s, Methodist Hospital had no full-time pharmacist on duty but relied on doctors to dispense drugs out of their offices and on nurses to dispense drugs in the hospital setting. Even with the appointment of a full-time pharmacist just prior to World War II, the druggist could operate out of a single small room.

The appointment of the hospital's second fulltime pharmacist was a surprise for the times. In 1948, there were few women and fewer blacks in pharmacy, but that year Reverand Lyle, Methodist Hospital's superintendent, appointed a black woman as chief pharmacist. She was Lillian Dorsey, a graduate of Creighton University who began working part time in the department in 1946 while still in pharmacy school.

1964 photo of Methodist Hospital
pharmacists Robert Mahoney, Jerry
Mahoney, Lillian Dorsey, Ed Gallagher.

She was featured in the June 1957 issue of Ebony magazine: "Lillian Avant Dorsey, 45, is instructor of pharmacology in the Nebraska Methodist Hospital School of Nursing and is the hospital's chief pharmacist. She heads an interracial staff of two registered pharmacists and a student who assist her in purchasing and compounding pharmaceuticals for the hospital. Mrs. Dorsey, who left college in 1932 because of the Depression, returned 14 years later after her husband joined the Army. She studied pharmacy although the school's dean warned her there were no jobs open to Negroes."

The Omaha World-Herald featured Mrs. Dorsey in the "Women of the Midlands" series in May 1976, shortly before she retired. The article shared insights into the challenges she faced and some of the key people who had made a difference in her life. Mrs. Dorsey was the daughter of Alabama sharecroppers whose own schooling ended at the fifth grade, but who believed strongly in education for their children. Mrs. Dorsey was quoted as saying, "We were very poor but it was a beautiful family. We adored each other."

The World-Herald reported that Mrs. Dorsey was five years old when the family moved to Omaha. She had seven brothers and one older sister. Three of the boys worked their way through Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and her sister earned three degrees. But during the Depression years, college was an impossible dream for the family's youngest children. Mrs. Dorsey dropped out of the University of Omaha in 1932. Later, when her husband, Holsey, went into the military to serve in World War II, she was determined to finish her education. At age 33, she became one of the four women in Creighton University's pharmacy class and one of the two who completed the program.

She credited the late Dr. William Jarrett, dean of Creighton's pharmacy school, as one of those who helped make her success possible. She recalled his blunt advice when she applied for admission: "There are only two Negro drugstores in Omaha and neither one can afford to hire you." When she insisted on pursuing her degree, Dr. Jarrett told her, "With that positive attitude, I'm behind you 100 percent."

For her first 18 months as head of the Methodist Hospital pharmacy, until another pharmacist joined the staff, Mrs. Dorsey worked seven days a week. By the time she retired, the pharmacy department had a staff of eight. She told the World-Herald, "I loved every minute of it. I never felt I didn't want to go to work, and each night when I went home I felt I had helped someone back to health."

In her retirement years, Mrs. Dorsey reflected on her unusual circumstances: "It is most interesting that I was a woman and black in an environment that then was overwhelmingly white and male. I was told by Reverend Lyle that I would run into difficulties. I told him that if I ran into any verbal abuse that would be the problem of the other person, not me. I got along fine. I urged the people who worked for me to treat everyone with respect -- the man who cleans the floor to the man who stands on it to operate. I had white males working under me, and we got along beautifully."

Mrs. Dorsey remained as head of the Methodist Hospital pharmacy until 1973, when she became an administrative assistant, serving in a role much like a patient ombudsman until her retirement in 1976.

After retiring at 65, she went back to school, earning a master's degree in urban affairs with a specialty in gerontology. She served as a volunteer counselor with the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging, becoming known as a role model for older people. She would encourage seniors to return to school, telling them, "If I can do it, they can too."

Lillian Avant Dorsey passed away in 1995.

A plaque in her memory is on display in the pharmacy conference room at Methodist Hospital. Today, the pharmacy employs a total of 92 full-time, part-time and casual employees, of which 42 are pharmacists.

Sources: "A Century of Medical Miracles: Nebraska Methodist Hospital (1891-1991)" ©1991 by Hollis J. Limprecht and Nebraska Methodist Health System; "Role Model Is 'Can Do' Proof," Omaha World-Herald, March 15, 1981; "Career Began on Blunt Note: 'Drugstores Can't Afford You,'" Omaha World-Herald, May 30, 1976; NMH Pulse Beat Newsletter, March 1964; "Speaking of People," Ebony, June 1957.