Matilda Arabella Evans, MD: Resolute, resilient, resourceful

Undated portrait of Dr. Evans (courtesy of Legacy Center: Archives & Special Collections, College of Medicine, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA)

Undated portrait of Dr. Evans (courtesy of Legacy Center: Archives & Special Collections, College of Medicine, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA)

Matilda A. Evans, MD, was the first African-American woman surgeon licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina. A true renaissance woman, she was not only a surgeon, obstetrician, and gynecologist for more than three decades, but she also founded and ran two hospitals, and was an educator, humanitarian, public health advocate, and author.

Family background and education

The eldest of three children, Dr. Evans was born in 1872 to Anderson and Harriet Evans in Aiken, SC. After her mother died when Matilda was eight years old, 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. Matilda decided at a young age to become a physician, despite having never met a woman in that role. As a child, she played doctor just as other children played house, made “medicines” from leaves, and “pills” from clay.

At age 13, she was offered a place in the nearby Schofield Normal and Industrial School founded by Martha Schofield, a prominent Quaker and abolitionist. Matilda was a brilliant student and quickly rose to the top of her class. Ms. Schofield encouraged Matilda to pursue a medical career and helped her obtain a scholarship to attend Oberlin College, OH. She then taught for several years before entering the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and graduating in 1897.

Surgical leader, educator, and mentor

Portrait of Dr. Evans in the official program of the Bishops’ Council of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (courtesy of the R. Carroll Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC)

Portrait of Dr. Evans in the official program of the Bishops’ Council of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (courtesy of the R. Carroll Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC)

After graduation, Dr. Evans opened her practice in Columbia, SC. Because no medical facilities during that time would allow an African-American physician to admit and treat patients, she started a hospital and nursing school in her home. Dr. Evans built a large clientele of wealthy white women who sought her services for medical problems they wanted to keep confidential. These patients paid her sufficiently, which enabled her to treat poor black women and children for free.

In 1901, she established the Taylor Lane Hospital and Training School for Nurses, Columbia. When the hospital ran into financial trouble, Dr. Evans gave up her home and moved into the hospital. She asked all of her staff to work without pay for 90 days and started farming the land around the hospital to pay the bills. Later, after a fire destroyed Taylor Lane Hospital, Dr. Evans founded the St. Luke’s Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Dr. Evans closed St. Luke’s in 1918 when she began service in the U.S. Medical Service Corps during World War I. She supported other women who wanted to pursue medical careers, and some of the letters that she wrote on behalf of other women are preserved in the Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives & Special Collections, Philadelphia (see Figure 1, this page).

Public health advocate

Dr. Evans was a strong advocate for community medical education and for improved health care for black children. She conducted physical exams of black children within Columbia’s public school system and found many children with undiagnosed diseases and ailments. As a result of her work, routine health examinations of children in Columbia’s public schools were implemented, and these exams eventually became part of a permanent health care program.

As a result of her work, routine health examinations of children in Columbia’s public schools were implemented, and these exams eventually became part of a permanent health care program. In 1931, she founded the Columbia Clinic Association, the city’s first free clinic for black children.

In 1931, she founded the Columbia Clinic Association, the city’s first free clinic for black children. On the day the clinic opened, more than 700 people came in for evaluations and for services such as vaccinations.

Dr. Evans later founded the Negro Health Association of South Carolina, which provided health education to minority families throughout the state. She served as president of the Palmetto State Medical Society in 1922 and as regional vice-president of the National Medical Association.

An author and editor, she wrote about the life and work of Martha Schofield and also founded and ran The Negro Health Journal of South Carolina. Dr. Evans never married; she adopted and raised seven children and served as a foster parent for more than two dozen others. She died in 1935 at the age of 63 after a short illness, leaving a remarkable legacy of service to her patients, students, and community despite the daunting obstacles of a segregated society and limited resources.

Figure 1. Letter of recommendation from Dr. Evans

Figure 1. Letter of recommendation from Dr. Evans


Bibliography

Columbia City of Women. Columbia City of Women honoree: Matilda Arabella Evans, MD. Available at: www.columbiacityofwomen.com/honorees/matilda-arabella-evans-md. Accessed September 24, 2019.

Dickerman GS. The story of a Negro child’s resolve. In: The Pennsylvania School Journal, Volume 55. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania State Education Association; 1906: 199-204.

Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives. Doctor or Doctress? Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans: Two women, two paths. Available at: http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A971. Accessed September 24, 2019.

Evans MA. Martha Schofield, Pioneer Negro Educator: Historical and Philosophical Review of Reconstruction Period of South Carolina. Columbia, SC: DuPre Printing Company; 1916.

Hine DC. The corporeal and ocular veil: Dr. Matilda A. Evans (1872–1935) and the complexity of southern history. J Southern Hist. 2004;70(1):3-34.

Hine DC. Matilda Evans. In: South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 2. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press; 2010: 266-292.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. Changing the Face of Medicine. Dr. Matilda Arabella Evans. Available at: https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_107.html. Accessed September 24, 2019.

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