How a Quaker Medical College in Pennsylvania trained the first women doctors in the world

Though the story is quite remarkable many have never heard of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania which was built in 1850 and became the first medical school for women in the world that had the authority to award its female students a medical degree.

The creation of the medical college would come two years after the historic Seneca Falls, New York Convention which fought for social, civil and religious rights of women.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the Seneca Falls Convention organizers, stated its purpose:

“We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.”

The convention proceeded to discuss 11 resolutions on women’s rights, including the right to an education and a profession. All passed unanimously except for the ninth resolution, which demanded the right to vote for women. (Women in the U.S. would only gain the right to vote in 1920.) Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery in the South and quickly rose as a renowned orator, writer and statesman for universal civil liberties, was present at this convention to show his support for women’s rights.

No doubt, the success of this convention in reforming women’s rights set the precedent for establishing the first women’s medical college, that would train not only women within the U.S. but from throughout the world. It is also thanks to the Quakers of Pennsylvania who believed in women’s rights enough to establish such an impressive college.

The college’s first announcement publicizing the program, made in a July 1850 edition of the Public Ledger, listed a few admission and graduation qualifications:

  • A completed “ordinary” education
  • Three years of medical study with two of those years under the guidance of a “respectable” medical professional
  • An age of 21 to receive a degree

Instruction included four months of lectures beginning in October that covered topics like anatomy, obstetrics, chemistry and clinical practice.

In 1862, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) moved from its original location at 627 Arch Street into a well-equipped new building on North College Avenue next to the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia. In addition to ample lecture halls, the new facility included a large library, a chemistry lab, and dissection rooms. In 1887, the college began an outpatient maternity service in South Philadelphia, and in 1895 established a nearby dispensary.

Ann Preston, a Chester County native born into a Quaker family, was part of the inaugural eight-person graduating class of 1851. After graduating, Dr. Preston became the school’s first woman professor. In 1866 she rose to become the school’s first dean, starting a tradition of all woman-deans for nearly the entire next century.

WMCP alumna Anna S. Kugler arrived in Guntur, a city within the state of Andhra Pradesh, India in November 1883. With very few funds, and working as a teacher part-time, she started a small dispensary and began planning for a hospital for women. Her dream was finally realised as the American Evangelical Lutheran Mission Hospital (Guntur Mission Hospital) which opened on the 22nd of June 1897.

The 50-bed hospital was established on an 18-acre campus and was considered one of the best in India, with surgical facilities, maternity and children’s wards, and a nursing school. In addition to being the first women’s hospital in the entire coastal belt of Andhra Pradesh, Guntur Mission Hospital was notable for being established and administered almost entirely by women. 

After practising medicine in India for nearly half a century, Dr. Kugler died in Guntur on the 26th of July, 1930 and shortly after her death the hospital was renamed Kugler Hospital.

The Guntur Mission/Kugler Hospital: In this photograph, a female patient arrives at the hospital on a stretcher. (Photo: Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Amy S. Barton graduated from the WMCP in 1874. Following graduation, she became interested in ophthalmology and gained acceptance to the Wills Eye Hospital, where she assisted the renowned ophthalmologist George Strawbridge for more than a decade before returning to the WMCP as professor of ophthalmology. Concerned that entirely too much emphasis was placed on teaching female medical students obstetrics and gynecology, Dr. Barton was determined to establish a clinic where all branches of medicine could be practiced. On October 31, 1895, her vision came to fruition with the opening of the Hospital and Dispensary of the Alumnae of the WMCP in South Philadelphia. Not only did the dispensary hold tremendous educational value for the WMCP students, it also served a community whose poorest residents might otherwise have no access to quality health care.

In this 1927 photograph, children examine a window exhibit while waiting in line at the dispensary
(Photo: Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Eliza Ann Grier was an emancipated slave who faced racial discrimination and financial hardship while pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. To pay for her medical education, she alternated every year of her studies with a year of picking cotton. It took her seven years to graduate. In 1898 she became the first African American woman licensed to practice medicine in the state of Georgia, and although she was plagued with financial difficulties throughout her education and her career, she fought tenaciously for her right to earn a living as a woman doctor.

Dr. Eliza Grier

Eliza Grier wrote to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in December of 1890 to inquire about the cost of medical school there, and whether there would be any work she could do that would not interfere with her studies. “I have no money and no source from which to get it,” she said, “only as I work for every dollar.” She asked the dean of the WMCP whether “any possible way…might be provided for an emancipated slave to receive any help into so lofty a profession.” She was admitted to the college, and alternated coursework with periods of working to earn tuition. She completed her studies in 1897, and later that year was licensed to practice medicine in Fulton County, Georgia.

According to a notice in the North American Medical Review in 1898, when Dr. Grier applied for a medical license in Georgia, she became the first African American woman admitted to practice in the state. “When I saw colored women doing all the work in cases of accouchement [childbirth],” she was quoted as saying, “and all the fee going to some white doctor who merely looked on, I asked myself why should I not get the fee myself. For this purpose I have qualified. I went to Philadelphia, studied medicine hard, procured my degree, and have come back to Atlanta, where I have lived all my life, to practice my profession. Some of the best white doctors in the city have welcomed me, and say that they will give me an even chance in the profession. That is all I ask.

By 1900, at least twelve African American women had graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Another alumnae, Susan LaFlesche, was the first Native American female physician in the United States. Dr. LaFlesche, was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. As a young girl, she witnessed the death of a Native American woman who had been refused medical care by a white physician. Later in life, Dr. LaFlesche cited this incident as her primary motivation for obtaining medical training.

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte

Following graduation, she returned to Nebraska where she worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a reservation physician. Dr. LaFlesche received one-tenth the salary of a Navy or Army doctor, even though she provided round-the-clock medical care for more than one thousand white and Native American patients. In 1894, she married Henry Picotte and moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where she opened a private practice. For the rest of her life, Dr. LaFlesche fought for Native American rights and continued to educate her people about the importance of hygiene and sanitation. In 1913, she opened a hospital on an Omaha reservation, fulfilling a life-long dream. She died two years later at the age of 50.

Incredibly, a picture taken in 1885 shows three women who graduated from the WMCP, each becoming the first woman from their respective countries to get a degree in western medicine.

Anandabai Joshee was a high-caste Brahmin woman who was married off at 9 to a man 20 years her senior. Despite this, it appears that Joshee’s husband was a very progressive man for his age and was very supportive and encouraging of his wife’s education.

Dr. Anandabai Joshi

Joshee had lost her 10-day old baby, when she was just 14. This loss very much motivated her to overcome incredible obstacles of caste and tradition, to travel to America and apply for admission to WMCP.

Here’s an excerpt from her letter of application:

“[The] determination which has brought me to your country against the combined opposition of my friends and caste ought to go a long way towards helping me to carry out the purpose for which I came, i.e. to render to my poor suffering country women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician. The voice of humanity is with me and I must not fail. My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves.”

Joshee is believed to be the first Hindu woman to set foot on American soil.

Keiko Okami returned to Tokyo and was recognized as a doctor and appointed head of gynecology at one of the main hospitals. But she resigned a few years later when the Emperor refused to receive her during a visit to the hospital, because she was a woman.

She went into private practice and was visited by a representative from the WMCP in 1939 — just before World War II started. She died two years later at the age of 81.

Dr. Okami in the garden of her home in Tokyo in 1939, aged about 80.
(Photo: Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine)

Sabat Islambouli, the student from Syria, is believed to have gone back to Damascus after earning her degree. She was in Cairo, Egypt, in 1919 according to the alumnae list, but after that the college lost touch with her. It’s not known what ultimately happened to her.

But Joshee was perhaps the most famous of the graduates.

Joshee was appointed to a position as physician-in-charge of the female ward at the hospital in the princely state of Kolhapur.

Tragically, she contracted tuberculosis and died within the year, at age 21. She’s still remembered as something of a hero in India.

Again breaking with tradition, Joshee’s husband sent her ashes to one of her American friends, who laid them to rest in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

The resting place of Anandabai Joshee in Poughkeepsie, New York.
(Photo: Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine)

By 1904, the college had produced alumnae hailing from Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, England, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Russia, Syria, India, China, Japan, Burma, Australia and the Congo Free State.

This wonderful history not only showcases the courage and love that these women from throughout the world had for the welfare of all, despite their personal trials and tribulations, but it also showcases the exceptionalism of the United States in the 19th century. There was much optimism and headway for universal human rights which offered opportunities that could not be found anywhere else in the world, this walked hand in hand with a focus on the country becoming a world leader in education and scientific progress.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the monumental Centennial Exhibit, which opened on May 10th 1876. Again it would be Pennsylvania, Philadelphia who would be at the center of this pioneering spirit. Over 10 million people came to see this exhibit from 37 participating countries!

Centennial Exhibit
Corliss Steam Engine, Centennial Exhibit

The importance of the Centennial Exhibit was an opportunity for the young country to display its very impressive inventions that had revolutionized its machine tool industry giving its economy a tremendous boost such that the 100 year old country had now become a leader in the world for its production capabilities, industry and wealth. However, the goal was not simply to showcase these achievements but to share them with the world, as a means for those countries to do the same with their industry. We can only imagine how optimistic this sharing was with countries all throughout the world, that such ideas had the very real means to uplift their people from poverty.

Frederick Douglass (1818-95), who was born a slave in the South and found his freedom in the North, remarked on this spirit in his autobiography “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass“:

Living in Baltimore as I had done for many years, the reader may be surprised, when I tell the honest truth of the impressions I had in some way conceived of the social and material condition of the people at the North. I had no proper idea of the wealth, refinement, enterprise, and high civilization of this section of the country. My Columbian Orator, almost my only book, had done nothing to enlighten me concerning northern society. I had been taught that slavery was the bottom-fact of all wealth. With this foundation idea, I came naturally to the conclusion that poverty must be the general condition of the people of the free states [since they possessed no slaves]. A white man holding no slaves in the country from which I came, was usually an ignorant and poverty-stricken man. Men of this class were contemptuously called “poor white trash”. Hence I supposed that since the non-slaveholders at the South were, as a class, ignorant, poor, and degraded, the non-slaveholders at the North must be in a similar condition.

New Bedford [Massachusetts], therefore, which at that time was in proportion to its population, really the richest city in the Union [the North], took me greatly by surprise, in the evidences it gave of its solid wealth and grandeur. I found that even the laboring classes lived in better houses, that their houses were more elegantly furnished and were more abundantly supplied with conveniences and comforts, than the houses of many who owned slaves on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. This was true not only of the white people of that city, but it was so of my friend, Mr. Johnson. He lived in a nicer house, dined at a more ample board, was the owner of more books, the reader of more newspapers, was more conversant with the moral, social, and political condition of the country and the world, than nine-tenths of the slaveholders in all Talbot County.

I was not long in finding the cause of the difference, in these respects, between the people of the North and South. It was the superiority of educated mind over mere brute force. I will not detain the reader by extended illustrations as to how my understanding was enlightened on this subject. On the wharves of New Bedford I received my first light. I saw there industry without bustle, labor without noise, toil – honest, earnest and exhaustive – without the whip. There was no loud singing or hallooing, as at the wharves of southern ports when ships were loading or unloading, no loud cursing or quarreling; everything went on as smoothly as well-oiled machinery. One of the first incidents which impressed me with the superior mental character of labor in the North over that of the South, was the manner of loading and unloading vessels. In a southern port twenty or thirty hands would be employed to do what five or six men, with the help of one ox, would do at the wharf in New Bedford. Main strength – human muscle – unassisted by intelligent skill, was slavery’s method of labor. With a capital of about sixty dollars in the shape of a good-natured ox attached to the end of a stout rope, New Bedford did the work of ten or twelve thousand dollars, represented in the bones and muscles of slaves, and did it far better.

In a word, I found everything managed with a much more scrupulous regard to economy, both of men and things, time and strength, than in the country from which I had come from. Instead of going a hundred yards to the spring, the maidservant had a well or pump at her elbow. The wood used for fuel was kept dry and snugly piled away for winter. Here were sinks, drains, self-shutting gates, pounding barrels, washing machines, wringing machines, and a hundred other contrivances for saving time and money. The ship-repairing docks showed the same thoughtful wisdom as seen elsewhere. Everybody seemed in earnest. The carpenter struck the nail on its head, and the calkers wasted no strength in idle flourishes of their mallets. Ships brought here for repairs were made stronger and better than when new. I could have landed in no part of the United States where I should have found a more striking and gratifying contrast, not only to life generally in the South, but in the condition of the colored people there, than in New Bedford [Massachusetts] No colored man was really free while residing in a slave state. He was ever more or less subject to the condition of his slave brother. In his color was his badge of bondage. I saw in New Bedford the nearest approach to freedom and equality that I had ever seen. I was amazed when Mr. Johnson told me that there was nothing in the laws or constitution of Massachusetts that would prevent a colored man from being governor of the State, if the people should see fit to elect him. There, too, the black man’s children attended the same public schools with the white man’s children, and apparently without objection from any quarter. To impress me with my security from recapture and return to slavery [Douglass had escaped from bondage in the South], Mr. Johnson assured me that no slaveholder could take a slave out of New Bedford, that there were men there who would lay down their lives to save me from such a fate.

Hopefully this testimony of Frederick Douglass offers further insight into the nature of the spirit going on at the time and a real purpose towards freedom and liberty.

Though this is now history, a history from over 100 years ago, the purpose of sharing its contents with you today is not simply to sigh and reminisce of a great time with great achievements that moved the world. It is important that we are aware of this history since these achievements and rejection of oppressive rule is what has formed a large part of the soul of this country. And though at times it is easy to lose sight of such things in the midst of the clamour, it still resides in our hearts.

Therefore, let us once again listen to the better angels of our nature.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

– President Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address, March 4th 1861

Archival information on the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania courtesy of Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine.

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