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Two Women, Two Paths

Published onApr 14, 2022
Two Women, Two Paths

In the late 19th century, it was still a great challenge for women to receive education, and even more so for those who were African American. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) was founded in 1850. As the college’s name literally said, it was a college founded for women to be formally educated. However, no African American women graduated from WMCP until 1867, 17 years after the foundation of the college. After that, only about 12 African American women had graduated from WMCP gradually by 1907. Surprisingly, in 1897, two African Americans, Eliza Ann Grier, and Matilda Evans graduated from WMCP, which is almost unheard of in the late 19th century. However, the family backgrounds of these two great women led them to two totally different life paths after graduation.

Two women, two paths

As two African Americans, Dr. Grier and Dr. Evans, had totally two different life experiences. Eliza Ann Grier was an emancipated slave who faced racial discrimination and financial hardship while pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor [1]. Due to the poor financial circumstance, Eliza picked cotton for earning tuition fees while studying, which took her 7 years to finally graduate.

It’s worth noting that Eliza wrote two letters in her life to ask for financial funds. She first wrote a letter to the proprietor of WMCP in 1890, asking how one might receive help paying for medical education [2]. She was then accepted and enrolled in WMCP in 1893. Another letter is in 1901 when Eliza became seriously ill. She wrote a letter to Susan B. Anthony, President of the National Woman Suffrage Association, to appeal to her for financial help [3]. Although Anthony didn’t help her directly, she did contact WMCP on her behalf. Unfortunately, Grier died just a year later.

A yellowed handwritten letter penned by Eliza Ann Grier.

Eliza Ann Grier, Letter to the proprietor of the WMCP, correspondence, December 6, 1890. Retrieved from

“I have no money and no source from which to get it, only as I work for every dollar. I desire a thorough medical education and I desire to enter the school to which I write now or some other good school…Do you know of any possible way that might be provided for an emancipated slave to receive any help into so lofty a profession?”

Matilda Evans, on the other hand, had a different path. She was born in a relatively knowledgeable family. Her grandmother, Edith Willis Corley, a lay midwife, and her uncle, an herbalist who treated people without access to physicians, became prominent influences in her life and exposed her to the world of service in health care [4]. Matilda was at the top of the class during middle school, and she was encouraged to attend Oberlin College with a scholarship. In 1893, she went to WMCP as well and graduated in 1897.

Similarly, Matilda became the first licensed African American woman in South Carolina. She started her first hospital at home, serving local patients. Rich white women became her major group of clientele, and Matilda used the money they paid to treat those poor African American women and children for free. In 1901, when Eliza was falling ill, Matilda built her first hospital: Taylor Lane Hospital. Though the hospital had been soon destroyed because of a fire, she built her second St. Luke’s Hospital and continued running it until 1918 when she began service in World War I. Later, she served as president of the Palmetto State Medical Society in 1922 and as regional vice-president of the National Medical Association. She also founded the Columbia Clinic Association, the first clinic free for black children, in 1931. Dr. Evans eventually died in 1935 at the age of 63 because of shortness.

Like Eliza Grier, Matilda wrote several letters throughout her life as well. However, her letters are asking for help for her students or asking for funds for her hospital or organizations, instead of seeking financial help individually.

Two mimeographed pages of Matilda Evans' letter to Dr. Alfred Jones

“I have built up...a most enviable reputation. I have done well and have a very large practice among all classes of people.”

Backgrounds differences as causes of two paths

It’s obvious that Eliza Ann Grier and Matilda Evans had very different life paths after graduation. Although both graduated from the same school, Eliza didn’t have many resources or even money, and she spent a lot of effort on earning tuition and asking for opportunities to enroll in college. Her health condition is also a problem that affects her life, which led to her early demise. In addition, Eliza was born as a slave. Even though she was soon emancipated as an infant, her previous status brought several inconveniences, such as the inability to enjoy privileges. Matilda, however, enjoyed all the resources she had. Both her grandma and her uncle gave her access to get in touch with medicine, and she could afford the tuition to take formal education. To Matilda, she only needed to worry about the academic performance but did not need to have a concern about the tuition, the accommodation, or even what to eat which Eliza managed to strive for every day.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, women receiving a formal education was really rare, especially women of African American descent. Laws were made making it a misdemeanor to educate the Negro, both before and after the Civil War [5]. Women were still considered to be housewives at that time, and it was difficult for them to receive formal education. All the articles and magazines were telling them how to become virtuous housewives, and how they could satisfy their husbands. It seemed like women at that time were no longer tied to their husbands and had the freedom to live freely, but in fact, the stereotypes the whole society brought to the women offered them no chance of seeking a job or educational opportunities. Women who tried to work needed to bear great stress from their friends and family. As a result, whatever the life path was for Eliza and Matilda, they were great and persistent women that we still respect today.

About the author

Chris Xia is a freshman at Wake, planning to double major in psychology and accountancy. He’s interested in sexuality and gender equality.

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