Physician, Statesman, Reformer
A native of Lawrence County, Alabama, Russell McWhorter Cunningham served the state as an educator, a physician, and a statesman. His first career was that of a teacher, which he began at only seventeen years old. He studied medicine and began his practice in Newburg, Alabama.
While practicing medicine in Franklin County, he was elected to the Alabama Legislature, serving from 1880 to 1885. In 1881 he was appointed state physician to the Wetumpka penitentiary. While working with prisoners at the Pratt Mines in 1884, he began to take interest in the Alabama prison system and pioneered reforms in the convict lease system. He called for more exhaustive inspection of mines while implementing systems for improved working and living conditions for all miners. For over thirty years, he served as physician in the mining community for Alabama Steel and Shipbuilding Company as well as the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company.
Responding once more to political service, Cunningham was elected to Alabama's Senate from Jefferson County serving from 1896 to 1900. He served as the president of the Senate from 1898 to 1900. He was a delegate to the 1901 Constitutional Convention and actively participated in the construction of that Constitution.
From 1902 through 1907, Cunningham served as Alabama's first Lieutenant Governor. Cunningham served as Governor as a result of the poor health of then-Governor Jelks, 1904 to 1905. Cunningham's anti-lynching policies, funding for education and libraries, tight regulation of child labor laws, an elected Railroad Commission, and encouraging immigration into the state were but a few of his progressive stances.
Retiring from active medical practice to a consultation practice in Birmingham in 1914, Cunningham was elected Birmingham's first health officer. In this position, he continued to educate the public about all known health conditions and give leadership in the Alabama medical Association.
Dr. Cunningham was also a leader in the Masons. He was elected Most Worshipful Grand Master of Alabama and the Grand Commander of Knights of Templar in Alabama.
Described as a man of conviction, able and competent, versatile and gifted, statesman and educator, Dr. Russell McWhorter Cunningham used his talents to make a difference in the communities where he lived and worked.