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.”
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.
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.
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?