Brooks, Benjy Frances (1918–1998)


By: Sarah C. Porter

Type: Biography

Published: December 21, 2021

Updated: December 21, 2021


Benjy Frances Brooks, the first woman to practice pediatric surgery in Texas, was born on August 10, 1918, in Lewisville, Texas, to Benjamin Barto Brooks and May (Henry) Brooks. The family resided in nearby Flower Mound, Texas, and later moved to Martha, Oklahoma. There, Benjy was joined by two younger siblings, Marjorie and Barty. An ambitious child, Brooks learned to read at a young age. She also demonstrated an interest in medicine and used manicure scissors to perform operations on her sister Marjorie’s dolls.

Brooks’s ambition continued to influence her educational and professional goals after she graduated from Martha High School. At the age of nineteen, she earned a B.S. in chemistry from North Texas State Teachers College at Denton (now University of North Texas) in 1938 and went on to earn her M.S. in biology from the school two years later in 1940. Her thesis was titled, “A Bio-chemical Comparative Study of the Plankton in Lake Dallas and Pecan Creek.” After graduating, Brooks worked as a high school science teacher in Carrollton, Texas, for four years before returning to medical school in 1944. That year, she entered the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, where she earned her medical degree in 1948. Despite the fact that Brooks was one of few women in the medical field at this time—an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram announcing M.D. candidates even accidentally identified Brooks as a male student—she decided to pursue additional surgical training. Brooks accepted prestigious residencies at the University of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Medical Center in Boston, and the surgical department at Harvard Medical School, where she was one of the first women admitted. She also spent a year abroad in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1957 and studied pediatric surgery at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children and served in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps Reserve. She attained the rank of captain.

In 1958, after completing her surgical training and traveling abroad, Brooks decided to return to Texas and became the first female pediatric surgeon in the state. That year, she began work at the Texas Children’s Hospital and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Houston and also was a volunteer teacher at the Baylor University School of Medicine in Houston. Pediatric surgery was not a well-developed field at this point, and Brooks often relied on her own creativity and innovation. Lacking specialized tools, for example, Brooks improvised and used jewelers’ instruments for infant operations. Throughout her career, Brooks performed more than 20,000 operations, including, in 1965, when she was on the medical team that performed surgery for the separation of conjoined twins. At the time, the procedure was the first such surgery in Houston and only the tenth in the United States.  In 1973 Brooks founded the Division of Pediatric Surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, which she led for ten years. Her skill did not go unnoticed, and an article in the February 23, 1975, edition of the San Antonio Express-News highlighted her dedication and quoted Mrs. Morris Norunsky, the grateful parent of son Harold who was born with a defective esophagus. Norunsky offered her praise and stated, “Dr. Brooks is more than just a human-body mechanic. She really cares.” Alongside her surgical responsibilities during this time, Brooks continued conducting medical research on issues, including burn treatment, congenital defects, spleen reparation, and hepatitis prevention. Throughout her career, she published articles in medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association.

     Though Brooks never married and had no children of her own, she dedicated her career to helping sick children and was known for her kindhearted nature and tenacious spirit. She was a founding member of the American Pediatric Surgical Association and the American Trauma Association. In addition to her medical work, Brooks founded the Bart Brooks Center for Ethics and Human Values, a non-profit named for her younger brother, a Korean War veteran and fighter pilot who died in a plane crash at Edwards Air Force Base in 1956. Brooks also received awards and recognition from many organizations outside of the medical profession. In 1967 the University of North Texas presented Brooks with a Distinguished Alumnus Award. She was the first woman to receive the award. The Horatio Alger Association honored Brooks with the organization’s annual award in 1983, and she was inducted into to the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame two years later, in 1985. The International Women’s Writing Guild named Brooks an “Artist of Life” in 1987. In 1994 she was named one of Houston’s Pioneer Women and Today’s Leaders. In 1993 Brooks became a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Tyler.

On April 2, 1998, Benjy Brooks passed away in Smith County, Texas. She was seventy-nine. She was buried in Round Grove Cemetery in Lewisville, Texas. The Houston Chronicle eulogized her as a leader in her field. Even after her passing, Brooks’s legacy continues to inspire medical professionals, patients, and policymakers. In 2018 the U. S. Congress honored her work with the passage of the Dr. Benjy Frances Brooks Children’s Hospital GME Support Reauthorization Act, which provided federal funding for children’s hospitals with pediatric surgery programs. One patient’s parents even established the Benjy Brooks Foundation for Children to continue her life’s work of advancing pediatric surgical care.

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Jenna Berger, “Dr. Benjy Brooks,” The Houston Review of History and Culture 2 (Fall 2004). “Dr. Benjy Frances Brooks,” Changing the face of Medicine, U. S. National Library of Medicine (https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_44.html), accessed December 16, 2021. Houston Chronicle, April 4, 1998. Sherrie S. McLeRoy, Texas Women First: Leading Ladies of Lone Star History (Charleston: The History Press, 2015). Don K. Nakayama, “Pioneering women in American pediatric surgery,” Journal of Pediatric Surgery 53 (2018). San Antonio Express-News, February 23, 1975. Tyler Courier-Times, April 5, 1998.

Categories:
  • Education
  • Educators
  • Medical
  • Health and Medicine
  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • Pediatricians
  • Science
  • Scientists and Researchers
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sarah C. Porter, “Brooks, Benjy Frances,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/brooks-benjy-frances.

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December 21, 2021
December 21, 2021

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