“Guardian of the Health of Negro Women”: The Work and Legacy of Dr. Virginia Alexander

 From the collections, Interns  Comments Off on “Guardian of the Health of Negro Women”: The Work and Legacy of Dr. Virginia Alexander
Jun 112020
 

by Mikaela Finlay, Virtual Intern Spring 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, doctors have become heroes, putting themselves at risk every day to help those affected. Today, doctors are more important than ever before, but they have been selflessly helping others long before the spread of coronavirus. Doctors have a responsibility to help those in need, and no one exemplifies that better than Dr. Virginia Alexander. In Philadelphia in the 1930s, Alexander ran a clinic from her home where she provided medical services to those who were denied them elsewhere, even if patients could not afford to pay. She used her facility to train future physicians, and her legacy is carried on today by women who share her vision and values.

“Above all, give knowledge to negro women.”

For most of the nineteenth century, women had difficulty gaining acceptance to medical schools and were often ridiculed by their male counterparts.1 The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, established in 1850,2 provided opportunities for women who could not find an education elsewhere.3 However, as opportunities for white women in the medical field broadened in the late nineteenth century, opportunities for black men and women became increasingly limited.4 Though African Americans could receive medical degrees, both African American doctors and their patients were excluded from white hospitals.5 This exclusion led to the establishment of over two hundred black hospitals in the United States by the 1930s.6 The establishment of more hospitals led to a conflict between black organizations pushing for equality and integration and African American doctors who felt their only opportunities were at black institutions.7 As a black woman physician, Virginia Alexander worked in both black and white hospitals in Philadelphia but conducted her most important work at her private clinic.8, 9 

Dr. Tallant, professor of obstetrics at WMCP outside the college’s maternity clinic c. 1923 (From the Clara Dickinson scrapbook Acc1993.01)

Virginia Alexander was born on February 4, 1900.10 She and her three siblings were raised by her widowed father.11 Though Alexander offered to drop out of school to help support her family, her father refused and instead encouraged all of his children to complete their education.12 After high school, Alexander attended the University of Pennsylvania and the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP).13 Following her graduation, she converted part of her small home in Brewerytown into a six-bed clinic called the Aspiranto Health Home (AHH).14 In 1928, she was one of about ninety African American women physicians in the country,12 and according to Philadelphia’s 1930 census, there were over three thousand white doctors in the city and only seven black women physicians.15 

Despite her extensive training and education, Virginia Alexander had difficulty finding equal treatment from hospitals. White hospitals would not accept her African American patients, and as a result, she was forced to bring patients she could not treat in her clinic to Mercy-Douglass Hospital, Philadelphia’s black hospital at the time. At the AHH, she provided medical care for pregnant women and young mothers, and gave babies the medical care they needed at the beginning of their lives.11 Though she saw white patients, her focus was on providing quality medical care to African Americans.14 She explained, “…we will have to… above all, give knowledge to Negro women who are going to become mothers”.11 Her practice was a state-licensed facility and a forerunner of modern-day birthing centers.12 

“She can never be repaid for the service she has given her race.”

Dr. Alexander in an undated photo (from the Black Women Physicians Project collection Acc178)

At the AHH, Alexander provided impoverished African Americans in Philadelphia with the health care they could not afford to receive elsewhere. To help these women, she did not charge those who could not afford their treatment and often gave her profits back to poor members of her community.16 Alexander also provided contraceptives to women free of charge for two years,17 and at one point, she had over seven thousand dollars in uncollected bills.18 In a letter, she explained, “I have accumulated nothing in the way of the world’s goods; but I think I have established a fairly sound practice”.19 She was described as the “guardian of the health of negro women”,11 and one patient said, “she is one of the most useful women in the community because she can never be repaid for the service she has given her race”.14 Over the course of five years, Alexander saw two thousand patients and delivered forty-three babies, including the granddaughter of W. E. B. Du Bois.16 

Alexander’s Aspiranto Health Home not only allowed her to help impoverished members of her community receive much needed medical treatment, but it also paved the way for other young physicians and for her colleague Helen Dickens. Alexander used her clinic to help aspiring doctors start their own practices in Philadelphia. The AHH was a “teaching home,” as she hosted young physicians in her home so they could gain experience at her practice. She hoped her training would enable them to establish their own community-oriented private clinics similar to her own by helping them make connections and learn the needs of their Philadelphia patients.16, 17 Helen Dickens was one such physician who worked closely with Alexander and eventually took over the AHH.  After her time at the AHH, Dickens went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Medicine, becoming the first African American to receive a Master’s of Medical Science degree from the University.10 In 1948 Dickens became the director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mercy Douglass Hospital and was the first African American woman to become a member of the prestigious American College of Surgeons since its inception in 1913.20, 21

“Our relationship is ingrained in our care”

Virginia Alexander spent her life providing medical care to underprivileged members of her community. As a physician, she used her station to aid those less fortunate than she. Through her commitment to equitable public health, Alexander established a clinic to provide her community with the healthcare they were denied elsewhere. She opened the doors of her clinic not only to patients but also to other young physicians, providing them with the experience necessary to eventually open their own clinics. She worked tirelessly and selflessly to help others, not striving to make money or gain recognition. 

Asasiya Muhammad at her clinic, Inner Circle Midwifery (photo by Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Today, the WMCP of Virginia Alexander’s day is no longer standing. The University of Pennsylvania hardly resembles the one she attended, and her six-bedroom clinic has long since been renovated. Though little remains today to remind us of her work, Alexander’s legacy is carried on by those who share her commitment to selfless public service. A 2019 story by WHYY reporter Taylor Allen details the work of one such woman. Asasiya Muhammad runs a maternity clinic in Germantown. She is the only black woman in Philadelphia who is a certified professional midwife, and she established Inner Circle Midwifery in 2016. She has always been passionate about reproductive justice, and her goal is to create a safe space for minority women where they can receive care from midwives who relate to their experiences. As an African American woman and a mother of five, she has experienced microaggressions from dismissive doctors at hospitals, and she wanted to provide a different experience for other mothers. She explained, “It feels better being with someone who feels like a mom, an aunt, someone you can relate to. Our relationship is ingrained in our care”.22 Maternity centers such as Muhammad’s are important because minority women are at a much higher risk for birthing complications. In Philadelphia in 2012, African American women made up 74% of maternal deaths, and nationally, black women experience fatal pregnancy complications four times more frequently than white women.23 Like Virginia Alexander, she is using her clinic to help others start their careers as well. Her interns gain experience before going on to pursue careers in women’s health and social justice.22 The women in Muhammad’s clinic are preparing to be the next generation of advocates and doctors like Alexander. Though Alexander’s work is not widely recognized, her legacy is carried on by women such as Muhammad who share her commitment to equitable care for everyone and her dedication to the health of African American mothers.

 

To see Mikaela Finlay’s full paper on Virginia Alexander, click here

 

Bibliography

1Abram, Ruth J. “Will There Be a Monument?: Six Pioneer Women Doctors.” “Send Us a Lady Physician”: Women Doctors in America 1835-1920, edited by Ruth J. Abram, W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, pp. 72–75.

2Peitzman, Steven J. A New and Untried Course: Woman’s Medical College and Medical College of Pennsylvania, 1850-1998. Rutgers University Press, 2003, pp. 1, 13, 147-161.

3Hine, Darlene Clark. “Co-Laborers in the Work of the Lord: Nineteenth Century Black Women Physicians.” “Send Us a Lady Physician”: Women Doctors in America 1835-1920, edited by Ruth J. Abram, W. W. Norton & Company, 1985, p. 110.

4Gamble, Vanessa Northington. Making a Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920-1945. Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. xvi.

5Byrd, W. Michael, and Linda A. Clayton. “Race, Medicine, and Health Care in the United States: A Historical Survey.” Journal of the National Medical Association, vol. 93, no. 3 [Suppl], Mar. 2001, pp. 11S–34S., www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2593958/?page=1.

6“Lone Black Hospital in Houston Ailing.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001), 17 Jul. 1990, p. 1. ProQuest, search.proquest.com/docview/533018659?accountid=70954.

7Bousfield, M. O. “AN ACCOUNT OF PHYSICIANS OF COLOR IN THE UNITED STATES.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 17, no. 1, 1945, pp. 61–84. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44440995.

8Rhodes, Bertha. “Personable REALTOR most OUTSTANDING Philadelphia WOMAN: MOST OUTSTANDING WOMAN.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001), 21 Nov. 1935, pp. 5. ProQuest, search.proquest.com/docview/531391582?accountid=70954.

9“Virginia M. Alexander, M.D.” Drexel Medical Archives, Black Women Physicians Project, Virginia Alexander file.

10Alexander, Raymond Pace. “The Doctor Virginia M. Alexander Scholarship Foundation (A Short Summary of the Life of Dr. Alexander)”. The Doctor Virginia M. Alexander Scholarship Foundation, Incorporated, 01 Mar. 1961. Drexel Medical Archives, Black Women Physicians Project, Virginia Alexander file.

11“Virginia M. Alexander”. Drexel Medical Archives, Black Women Physicians Project, Virginia Alexander file.

12Alexander-Minter, Rae. 14 Mar. 1986. Drexel Medical Archives, Black Women Physicians Project, Virginia Alexander file.

13Medical Woman’s Journal, Jul. 1949, pp. 34-35. Drexel Medical Archives, Black Women Physicians Project, Virginia Alexander file.

14Southern Workman, vol. 62, no. 8, 1933, pp. 340–341. Drexel Medical Archives, Black Women Physicians Project, Virginia Alexander file.

15Alexander, Virginia M. The Social, Economic and Health Problems of North Philadelphia Negroes and Their Relation to a Proposed Interracial Public Health Demonstration Center. 1935. University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, Virginia Alexander Papers. 

16“Can a Colored Woman be a Physician?” The Crisis, Vol 40, No 2, Feb. 1933, pp. 33-34.

17Alexander, Virginia M. Received by Helen Dickens, 2104 Jefferson Street, 1935, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, Virginia Alexander Papers. 

18Baker, Joseph V. “Dr. Alexander’s Work in Public Health Hailed.” p. 24. University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, Virginia Alexander Papers.

19Alexander, Virginia M. Received by Helen Dickens, 2104 Jefferson Street, 30 Apr. 1935, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, Virginia Alexander Papers. 

20“Changing the Face of Medicine | Helen Octavia Dickens” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 3 June 2015, cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_82.html.

21“History of the American College of Surgeons.” American College of Surgeons, 2020, www.facs.org/about-acs/archives/acshistory.

22Allen, Taylor. “One of the Few Black Midwives in Philadelphia Wants to Give Women of Color More Healthcare Options.” WHYY, WHYY, 13 Feb. 2019, whyy.org/articles/inner-circle-midwifery-wants-more-natural-births-for-women-of-color/.

23Scott, Emily. “Midwives Hope Philly’s First Free-Standing Birth Center Will Make Inclusive Care More Accessible.” WHYY, WHYY, 17 June 2019, whyy.org/articles/midwives-hope-phillys-first-free-standing-birth-center-will-make-inclusive-care-more-accessible/.

Suffrage Reference Guide

 Reference guide  Comments Off on Suffrage Reference Guide
Apr 152020
 
A guide to collection materials on women in medicine and their involvement in the suffrage movement and other forms of women’s activism.

 

Responsibility rests upon women at the present time as it never rested upon them before, to choose and then, having chosen, to act

Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, WMCP Commencement Speech, 1918


Table of Contents

  1. Background
  2. Specific Incidents
  3. Publications and Theses
  4. Individuals and Collections
  5. Women in Medicine: A Bibliography of the Literature on Women Physicians

 

This resource guide describes materials regarding women in medicine and their involvement in the suffrage movement and other forms of women’s activism. The collections particularly reflect activity at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) which opened its doors as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1850.  The college was the first degree-granting medical school for women in the country. The first class of graduates included Drs. Hannah E. Longshore and Ann Preston, two powerhouse physicians that broke many barriers to practice medicine and change public opinions towards women. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania didn’t officially endorse universal suffrage until 1915 but faculty such as Dr. Clara Marshall supported suffrage for women. These narratives and more can be found in the pages of the collections held at the Legacy Center. 

The collections’ focal point is women in medicine, however many women believed that the fight for the right to vote and the right to study and practice medicine were the same fight, and both movements benefited from the successes of the other.

Edith Flower Wheeler, WMCP 1897 with others in 1918

The resources described range from the early 1850s until late 1970s and include published sources as well as diaries, a memoir, theses, lectures and lecture notes, and correspondence. Some sources have been digitized and are linked in the guide and others are only available on-site at the Legacy Center.

 

 

SPECIFIC INCIDENTS 

NAWSA’s Dr. Anna Howard Shaw Memorial Department of Preventive Medicine at the Woman’s College of Pennsylvania. 1919-1920

Dr. Anna Howard Shaw had three goals that she wanted to achieve in her lifetime: suffrage for women; prohibition; and science being taught as a way of prevention. She dedicated many years of her life to her causes and before her death, in 1918, she saw two of them come to fruition, suffrage and prohibition. To honor her memory, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania planned to start a Department of Preventive Medicine to continue her legacy. Another women’s college in the area, Bryn Mawr College, also wanted to honor Dr. Shaw’s memory with a Political Science Department and the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) originally planned to only offer the funds to one of the schools. When NAWSA held an event in February of 1920 so speakers from both colleges could stake their case for their plans for a memorial, speakers on both sides made a compelling case. It was decided that both WMCP and Bryn Mawr would receive $30,000 for their respective departments. The narrative of this event spans multiple sources. 

Dr. Anna Howard Shaw at a woman's march

Dr. Anna Howard Shaw

Clippings 1919-1923
Woman’s Medical College Bulletin
Woman’s Medical Journal 
The Iatrian Suffrage Debate

Beginning in December 1911 to March 1912, a series of opinion pieces about suffrage were published in the Iatrian, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania’s student journal.  The medical students debated the issue of whether suffrage would benefit them. 

The Iatrian – The Woman’s Medical College’s monthly student publication
Women physicians, suffrage, and WWI

When the United States officially entered the WWI conflict in 1917, the US Government sent many male physicians overseas to aid the wounded as ranking officers. Despite female physicians also interested in lending their talents to the cause, the government would not allow them to serve.

Dr. Caroline Purnell’s article discusses the tension between organizations as women looked for ways to serve. Women working under the auspices of the National Suffrage Association traveled around the United States to raise money to send women to Europe to aid in the war. The work these groups did became known as the “Over Seas Hospitals,” promising women physicians salaries and ranks in the French Army. Purnell argues their promises to be unrealistic and unfounded, and instead, the women physicians should support the work of the American Women’s Hospitals (AWH) which sent women doctors throughout Europe to aid people in the war zones recover from the destructive war. Purnell believed deeply in suffrage but believed that the National Suffrage Association was deceiving its recruits. Purnell describes the formation of the AWH, its relationship to the American Women’s Medical Association, and its distinction from the National Suffrage Association’s “Over Seas Hospitals.”

Dr. Mary Buchanan’s President’s Address to the Alumnae Association of the WMC likens the women’s opportunity to gain suffrage to their opportunities to support the war effort. Buchanan describes women physicians efforts to serve despite the government limitations on commissioning women, including the fact that the Woman’s Suffrage Assocation paid the salaries of women physicians in France.

Transactions of the Alumnae Board of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania 

PUBLICATIONS AND THESES

The Iatrian

Formerly known as the Esculapian, the Iatrian was the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania’s monthly student periodical. As the suffrage movement was getting more traction in the political sphere in America, the medical students began to talk more about the topic, including what appeared in the Iatrian as a form of public discussion from the years of 1910 until 1913.

Publication Dates
Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania Clipping Scrapbooks

April 25, 1915 Philadelphia Suffrage Parade

The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania compiled newspaper and journal clippings from around the nation that mentioned the college and anyone associated with the college in scrapbooks. This specific range of clippings is about women’s rights and the women of the college participated in the movement and their opinions dating from 1915 until 1920. The range includes clippings from volumes 5 and 8 of the clippings scrapbooks. 

Clippings
Bulletin of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania

The quarterly publication of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. The Bulletins include updates on the college community including faculty, alumni and students. The Bulletins listed below include pieces that are related to suffrage and women’s rights from 1915-1930.

Woman’s Medical Journal

The Woman’s Medical Journal is a monthly publication recording the work of women in medicine around the world. The journals listed include pieces related to the aftermath of women receiving the vote, ranging from 1920-1923.

Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania Theses

Theses of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania on the topic of the right of women to practice medicine and why women are a necessary part of the development of the profession in general. As more women began to enter into medical colleges, the question of why women should practice medicine was asked more widely and several students addressed the issue in their theses. Theses from 1851 until 1871

INDIVIDUALS AND COLLECTIONS 

The individuals named in this section authored or are featured in materials relating to women in medicine (or women medical adjacent) and women’s activism, be it suffrage or other movements. These materials  may not be the only representation of women’s activism in the collections, instead the information presented should be a guide or starting point.

  • Rachel L. Bodley
  • Edith Flower Wheeler, WMCP 1897, 
  • Anna M. Fullerton, WMCP, 1882
    • Anna M. Fullerton Dairies (1915-1933, 5 Vols),
      • Dr. Anna Fullerton was interested in the suffrage movement in England and believed that it was fascinating. She also recounts the memories of finding out about the 19th amendment being passed and someone contacting the last living person that attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. 

  • Sarah Hibbard, WMCP 1870
    • Lecture Notes, Sarah Hibbard, approx. 1870s, Sarah A. Hibbard M.D. papers, 2nd booklet

  • Clara Marshall, WMCP 1875

Mary Putnam Jacobi, WMCP 1864. She was a leader in the US suffrage movement.

Women Doctors in America based on Abrams’s research of the Class of 1987 from WMCP

  • Ruth Abram
    • Ruth Abram authored “Send Us A Lady Physician” Women Doctors in America 1835-1920. Her collection of research materials includes comprehensive research on the WMCP class of 1879.
      • Obituary: Dr. Battershall, Pioneer, Passes On–a252_b10f32_9.1ph15
      • Photo: Suffrage Parade 1915–a252_b10f57_11.6ph5
      • A Fair Proposition from the Chicago “Lever”
      • Mrs. Kemp’s Eightieth Birthday
      • Agnes Nininger Sabders Kemp

  • History of the College, Thomas Longshore, approx. 1890s, Martha Tracy papers, pg. 11
    • The History of the College was written by Thomas E. Longshore, brother of Dr. Joseph Longshore, co-founder of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1850. Dr. Longshore led the school in educating women physicians and he hired doctors who were willing to teach them but one particular, Dr. David J. Johnson, became jealous of Longshore’s popularity and began attacking him for his progressive beliefs such as Woman’s Rights, temperance and mesmerism (hypnotist). 
  • Longshore family papers
    • Hannah E. Longshore, WMCP 1852
      • Pioneer in the Cause for Women Hannah E. Longshore MD
        • To commemorate the life of the late Dr. Hannah E. Longshore, Pennsylvania’s first practicing woman physician and the second in the country, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania started the Hannah E. Longshore Department of Therapeutics. A pamphlet tells Dr. Longshore’s story of breaking the barriers of the typical woman’s sphere. 
    • Lucretia L. Blankenburg 
      • Lucretia L. Blankenburg was the daughter of Dr. Hannah E. Longshore and Thomas Longshore, the niece of Dr. Joseph Longshore that followed in her family’s legacy and promoted the advancement of women. dedicated her life to the equality of women and men after watching her mother struggle with the discrimination of being a female physician. She died in 1937 from pneumonia.
        • Lucretia Blankenburg address for winning award, 1933 2000.12.12-16/a2000.12_b01f11
          • In 1933, Blankenberg received an honorary degree from Temple University. In her acceptance speech she spoke about life growing up and committing to Woman’s Rights. She mentions Philadelphia institutions such as Temple University and Drexel University.
      • Obituary: Mrs. Lucretia Blankenburg dies, aged 91
        • Lucretia Blankenburg died from pneumonia in 1937. Her obituary details her life and how she dedicated her life to the equality of women and men after watching her mother struggle with the discrimination of being a female physician.

Women in Medicine: A Bibliography of the Literature on Women Physicians by Sandra L. Chaff

This bibliography is a compiled list of over 4000 references to books, journal articles, and dissertations dating from 1750-1975. Available online, the bibliography has a subject index that includes Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Rights, as well as author and personal name indexes. Indexes lead to numbers that correspond to article numbers. Some titles are in the Legacy Center collections.

Back to the top 

Table of Contents

  1. Background/Purpose
  2. Specific Incidents
  3. Publications and Theses
  4. Individuals and Collections
  5. Women in Medicine: A Bibliography of the Literature on Women Physicians