Visiting Friends: Encounters in the Alumnae Files

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Jan 142019

A card for Dr. Eleanor Way-Allen. Handwritten across the top reads "We all are Doctors / Fa la la la la la la"

The first item we see upon opening Florence Weaver’s alumna file is a carefully handwritten letter dated February 16, 1906.  It’s 18-year-old Florence Weaver writing to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) asking for their consideration of her as an applicant to their school.  We flip through her folder and see, among other things, a letter she sent from India while she was a medical missionary, a survey completed during her time at Arizona State Hospital, and a newspaper clipping about her husband’s death in November 1958.  Following a letter from Weaver’s daughter notifying the school of her death in June of 1967, the last item in Florence Weaver’s file is a small card from her funeral, thanking the College for their gesture of sympathy.

Anna Thoburn graduated from WMCP in 1898.  An announcement of her 1880 marriage to Rev. Dr. Thoburn can be found in her file.  Alongside it is an 1898 letter to the dean about her efforts to start a “non-alcoholic” hospital, with a mention of a potential transfer student she was mentoring in Bombay.  The next source documents WMCP’s attempt to locate Dr. Thoburn in 1951.  Their letter to the missionary group she had been affiliated with was answered with a notice that Anna Jones Thoburn had died of tuberculosis in 1902.

In June of 1951, 1901 graduate of WMCP Susan Corson was notified by letter of her Honorary Life Membership with the Alumnae Association.  Dr. Corson’s handwritten reply of thanks is next to a copy of the Alumni Association’s letter in Corson’s file.  What follows both is an index card from the alumni office of Swarthmore College that reads “The date of death of Susan Rogers Corson, M.D. was April 28th, 1962.”

This is the rhythm of research in the Alumnae Files of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.

What are the Alumnae Files?

This collection represents the WMCP’s attempts to keep tabs on their graduates.  The records were collected by the College and maintained by those later in charge of the institution’s archives.  When the school received news about one of their grads, or if one wrote in themselves, those communications often created a file for them in this collection.  Today, they are a first point of entry for a significant portion of research endeavors undertaken at the Legacy Center, steward of WMCP’s Alumnae Files.

As vital as the alumnae files are to us, it’s difficult to make generalizations about them.  Not every graduate has a file here, and the contents of each folder vary widely.  But still, there is a familiar rhythm to each inquiry I’ve taken on with these files, and a consistent melody of emotions they provoke.

The foremost of these themes is the morbid and dark.  Obituaries are denizens of most alumni files.  For some, it’s the only document in their folder.  Many references to an alumna’s death are transactional.  Index cards document a graduate’s contributions to the alumnae association until “Deceased” is scrawled at the bottom of their card.  Other references seem almost casual, like Grace Schermerhorn’s letter asking after colleague and fellow graduate Anna Fullerton: “When did Dr. Fullerton die?  She visited me in Clinton.”

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Though the shadow of death looms large over this collection, these records still teem with proof of life.  Articles and letters about an individual’s work often end up in their alumna file, and these anecdotes add profound depth to the name on their folder.  An 1888 issue of The Medical Missionary Record features Dr. Jessica Carleton writing about her work at the hospital her brother ran in India.  She wrote about her passion for her work, about enjoying time spent in charge when her brother was out of town, and about the time “a man brought three baby bears as a gift.”

Regardless of the research questions I enter the alumnae files with, the most profound insights I leave with are into the character of the people I encounter.  Little gestures in their writing prompt my imagination to fill in bits about their personality and see them as a more fully realized person.    Things like Ellen Potter’s boasting at how “astonishingly active” she was at 84 years old. “Can still walk circles around some of the present generations,” she wrote.

Snippet of an alumnae survey form. "Married?" the survey asks, "NO" the respondent replied.

Blanche Wunderle’s 1953 alumnae survey asked if she was married.  It was the only question for which she used capital letters to answer a resounding “NO.”

I often dive into this collection looking for an answer and find myself making a friend instead.  Dr. Katharine B. Scott was one such friend of mine.  I read with interest a 1922 report from her medical missionary work in India.  She was working at an understaffed hospital in Madura while on holiday from her regular work as a professor of anatomy at a women’s medical college in Vellore.  Her later communications were sent from Lancaster, Massachusetts, the very same town in which she treated her first patient in 1906.  She ran a private practice there until her retirement two decades later.  On her 1953 alumnae survey, she mentioned her longstanding hobby of finding homes for stray and neglected dogs and cats.  I was charmed.

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In the fall of 1967, a letter from the alumnae office was returned with a notice that Dr. Scott was no longer living at that address.  The College followed up with the current resident, who informed them that Dr. Scott was at a nursing home an hour away.  “She is blind and her memory is failing,” the note added.  This was confirmed by the nursing home soon after, with a postcard confirming that Scott was still a patient there, adding that “She has become quite feeble.”

The next item in the file is a letter from an attorney:

Re: Estate of Dr. Katharine B. Scott
Enclosed herein is a check in the sum of $2,000 in payment of the legacy left to you in Dr. Scott’s Codicil to her Will… Dr. Scott had a long and distinguished career in medicine including service in India, part of which was spent under Dr. Ida Scudder teaching Indian women medical students.

Another friend made and lost.

It’s easy to get hung up on that loss while searching through the alumnae files.  It’s easy to feel worn down by the inevitability of death when nearly every folder you open contains an obituary.  But mortality is just one of many notes heard in the melody of the alumnae files.  Again and again, we search for a name and are confronted with lively evidence of the fullness of their personhood.  We catch glimpses of their personalities.  We read along as they express passion for their work, kinship with their colleagues, and fondness for their former school.

I cannot help but feel a closeness with them, despite my professional role.  There is a distinct, one-sided relationship that develops from snooping through a stranger’s things long after they’re gone.  It’s hard to resist being entranced by the act of imagining past our sparse evidence to the wide expanse of their life.

For me, work in the alumnae files is a careful juggling act of inquiry, empathy, and existential dread.  So many of these dives have offered critical insights into my research and illuminated untrodden paths to pursue.  It’s both rewarding and emotionally taxing work.  But isn’t making friends always like that?

Dissecting Harriet Cole: Uncovering Women’s History in the Archives

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Nov 202018



The complete nervous system dissection in black and white.

The complete nervous system dissection known as “Harriet.”

Reflecting on recent events like the Women’s Marches and #MeToo Movement,  the Society of American Archivists (SAA) selected Perspectives on Women’s Archives, edited by Tanya Zanish-Belcher and Anke Voss, for its 2018 One Book, One Profession reading initiative. The purpose of this SAA initiative is to bring professionals together to discuss trends in archival practice. In this case, collecting and raising women’s voices in the archives. Recently, I participated in the Delaware Valley Archivists Group’s Fall Meeting at the Chester County Historical Society. At the meeting, we used Perspectives on Women’s Archives as a springboard to discuss women’s collections, women’s archives, and women’s voices in archives. During the discussion, someone brought up the difficulty of finding working-class or impoverished women of color in archives. I immediately thought of Harriet.

If you haven’t been following along with our social media series #WhoisHarriet, here’s a quick synopsis:

Each Tuesday for the past 10 weeks, I’ve posted a #WhoisHarriet post on our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). These posts feature a transparent look at our most popular archives mystery, Harriet. Harriet is a complete dissection of the cerebrospinal nervous system, dissected and mounted in 1888 by anatomist Dr. Rufus Weaver of Hahnemann Medical College. I used this series to uncover and document any concrete information about the living Harriet. Articles on Dr. Weaver and his 1888 dissection suggest that Harriet Cole was an African American woman who worked at Hahnemann as a “scrubwoman” or “janitor.” The same articles also suggest that, upon her death, she would donate her body to Dr. Weaver. There is however no proof that she donated her body to Dr. Weaver, no proof that she worked at Hahnemann, and no proof that her name is even Harriet Cole. For the #WhoisHarriet series, I attempted to use our collections and outside sources to find proof of her donation, proof that she worked at Hahnemann, and proof that her name was in fact Harriet.

If Weaver’s dissection is in fact a working class African American woman named Harriet Cole, what are the chances her name appears in the archival record? If she isn’t there, how can I still tell her story?

Finding Harriet in the Archival Record

In our archives, we collect copies of publications written about Dr. Rufus Weaver and Harriet; each tells the same story with newer articles simply regurgitating older articles.

Some stories are more elaborate than others, but each boils down to the same points. Harriet Cole was a 35-40 year old African American scrubwoman who worked for Dr. Rufus Weaver at Hahnemann Medical College. She died of tuberculosis in 1888. Before her death, she willed her body to Dr. Weaver, because she knew he needed cadavers for his anatomical preparations.

My goal for this research project and social media series was to prove/disprove this story by uncovering concrete evidence using our collection and additional outside sources. I have laid out my research process and accompanying photos below. Follow my process of looking for Harriet.

Questions to Answer:

  • Did a “Harriet Cole” exist during this time period?
  • Did a “Harriet Cole” donate her body to Dr. Rufus Weaver in 1888?
  • Did a “Harriet Cole” work for Dr. Weaver or Hahnemann Medical College at any point between 1869-1888? Did Hahnemann Medical College keep a list of employees during the 1870s-1880s?

Harriet Cole: She Exists, But…

It is entirely possible that a woman named Harriet Cole existed in 1888 in Philadelphia.

After searches on Ancestry and FamilySearch, I found an 1870 census record for a black woman named Harriet Cole who worked as a domestic. This Harriet lived in Philadelphia’s Ward 9 in 1870, the same ward as Hahnemann Medical College at the time. I also found a death certificate from March 1888 for a Harriet Cole who died of tuberculosis with the “place of burial” listed as Hahnemann Medical College right around the time Weaver acquired the cadaver. These two instances of a “Harriet Cole” in the historical record could almost certainly be the woman I am looking for, but this is circumstantial evidence. There could be other Harriet Coles who did not participate in the census. 

So I can’t know for sure.

1870 Ward 27 Census with a Harriet Cole highlighted

1870 Ward 27 Census with a Harriet Cole highlighted.

Body Donation: Understanding Time and Place

It is entirely possible that Harriet Cole donated her body to Dr. Rufus Weaver.

When Weaver acquired the cadaver in 1888, the United States was just closing the door on grave-robbing and other less than savory methods of body procurement. That being said, 1888 was still an era when body donations were not documented as rigorously, which makes sense as to why we don’t have any definitive evidence. It was also an era when most Americans disapproved of dissection and voluntary body donations were quite rare. Many states legislated that unclaimed bodies of people who died in hospitals, asylums, and prisons would be allocated to state medical schools for the purpose of anatomical dissection. This alleviated the need for body snatching, but it marked body donation as a sign of poverty. Harriet Cole was probably poor and wished to donate her body to Weaver rather than leave any family member with burial costs. We don’t have any paperwork outlining the donation of her body to Hahnemann or Dr. Weaver.

So I can’t know for sure.

Hahnemann Medical College Staff Records: Slim to None

It is entirely possible that a Harriet Cole worked for Hahnemann Medical College sometime between 1866-1888.

Hahnemann Medical College Board kept records of their meetings between 1866-1888. The Board records however didn’t track nitty gritty information like school or hospital employment, but rather financial information for each academic year. For instance, in the minutes from the 1883-1884 academic year, they wrote, “janitor’s wages to Apr. 1, 84…845.00” There is however no mention of a janitor’s name.

In the Hahnemann Medical College Faculty minutes, there was more detailed information about staff. I came across records of janitors, including their names, in the Hahnemann Medical College Faculty Minutes from 1850-1869. Medical school janitors were often African American men appointed by the faculty. These positions typically lasted for one year and during that time the janitor and his family lived at the College. These janitors were tasked with procuring bodies for the medical student dissections. It is possible that Harriet came to Hahnemann as the wife/family of a janitor. However, there is a gap in the faculty minutes between 1869 to 1900, so I can’t determine if Hahnemann appointed a janitor by the name of “Cole.”

Harriet could have been a casual employee of Dr. Weaver, but Weaver’s personal records and papers have never been found (if they even exist at all).

So I can’t know for sure.

A page from the Hahnemann Medical College Faculty Minutes discussing janitor positions.

A page from the Hahnemann Medical College Faculty Minutes discussing janitor positions.

Bad Press is Better Than No Press

Hitting a research wall, I remembered the Ulrich adage “well-behaved women seldom make history.” Turning to  the Philadelphia Inquirer, I got some hits for “Harriet Cole.” On Friday October 7, 1870 (and the next 2 subsequent weeks), under “Hearings at the Central,” I found a case involving a “Harriet Cole.” Cole was involved in an attempted robbery and physical assault. This Harriet Cole fits the age, race, and time frame of our Harriet, but there is no conclusive evidence.

This could be the same Harriet Cole, but I can’t know for sure.

"Hearings at Central" section of the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1870. Harriet Cole's name is highlighted.

“Hearings at Central” section of the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1870. Harriet Cole’s name is highlighted.

Telling Harriet’s Story

“We are grappling with the challenges of unearthing heretofore unknown women and coming to grips with how and why the “smallness” of their work or their worlds illuminates dimensions of the past we urgently need to understand.”

This passage from Antoinette Burton’s “Finding Women in the Archives” exemplifies my attempt to uncover Harriet.  While it may seem like too much time and energy spent on the “smallness” of her world,  it is incredibly necessary and important to uncover. What was her relationship actually like with Dr. Weaver? What did she think about donating her body to Weaver? Did she actually sign away her body to him? Could she read and write? Did she know what she was doing? These are the “dimensions of the past” that we urgently need to understand. Learning more about Harriet would bring out the story of a working class black woman, someone traditionally marginalized in the archives and historical record. It would also highlight the history of race and class in body donations and anatomical dissections in Philadelphia in the 1880s-90s, a relatively unknown subject.

Weaver’s achievement permeates the current historical narrative, leaving Harriet a mythologized fragment of his triumphant tale. It puts Harriet in a role desired for her–a kind-hearted black woman who  jumped at the chance to donate her body to Dr. Weaver. By sharing our lack of archival evidence, we are exposing the harm of the traditional story– Harriet as merely a plot point not a person. Instead of perpetuating this, we can now emphasize her absence from the record and use this as a discussion or lesson on why she’s not there. Archives have a duty to collect and raise women’s voices in the archives, whether it be sharing, digitizing, creating educational material, or finding and rectifying absences or silences in the collections–and this is one just one example. While it may be challenging work, this work will illuminate the worlds of unknown women, giving us a more accurate and richer look at the past.

For further information, please check out the photos below or our series #WhoisHarriet.


Antoinette Burton. “Finding Women in the Archive: Introduction.” Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 20 No 1, 149-150. 2008.

Raphael Hulkower. “From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States.” The Einstein Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2011. p. 23-26