8 June 2023

Caroline Still Anderson, the first black female doctor in Philadelphia



Women were not officially admitted to medicine until the 19th century. Until then, this area was considered exclusively male, and women could only be involved in obstetrics, as they were treated by society as too sophisticated and unintelligent creatures. Read more at iphiladelphia 

In the 19th century, things changed drastically. Nurses were the first to make a huge breakthrough in medicine, with women entering the field. Eventually, female doctors began to appear: gynecologists, surgeons, pediatricians, dentists, etc. Caroline Still Anderson became a pioneering physician in the African-American community and one of the first black female doctors in Philadelphia.  

Caroline Still’s childhood and adolescence

In the African-American community of Philadelphia, Caroline Still Anderson led pioneering reforms in the medical field. She was one of the first black women doctors in the United States. 

She was born on November 1, 1848 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Still family had 4 children and Caroline was the oldest. Her parents led the American abolitionist movement, which was a major factor in the unfolding of the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Abolitionism is also interpreted as a social movement for the abolition of slavery. It manifested itself in mass protests and uprisings. It is likely that Caroline inherited her parents’ strength of spirit and resilience in the face of difficulties. In the future, these best qualities would help her realize her potencial and make history as a medical innovator.

Source: Oberlin College Archives photo

As a child, Caroline was sent to Mrs. Gordon’s Private School. Her parents could afford to give their children the best education possible, as her father was involved in the coal industry, where he earned a good living. From a private school, she went to The Friends’ Raspberry Alley School, and later to the Institute for Colored Youth. In 1864, she became a student at Oberlin College, the only black student and the youngest in her class. 

Not every African-American family could afford such a luxury, as education was very expensive in those days. Philadelphia was no different in terms of hospitality, and black people were treated differently. However, Caroline was still very lucky to receive a quality education, as her family was one of the few who “prospered” socially and economically. After receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree, Caroline Still was elected a leader in the Ladies’ Literary Society of Oberlin. She went down in the history of this society as the first black president. She worked as a teacher of eloquence, drawing and music, but not for long. Everything changed in 1875. 

Since childhood, the girl was encouraged to study by her parents, especially her father. The eldest daughter lived up to expectations. Not only did she become the first black female doctor in Philadelphia, but she also made major changes in this field, which had long been considered a purely “male” one.

Caroline Still decides to become a doctor

Her career in medicine began after the sudden death of her husband, Edward A. Wiley, in 1875. To this day, it is impossible to say with certainty whether this event was the driving force behind such an important decision. Caroline becomes a student at Howard University College of Medicine. After a year of studying, she transferred to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she earned her doctorate. To cover her travel and living expenses, she was forced to work as an art teacher while studying to become a doctor.

Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Source: photo by philadelphiaencyclopedia.org

In 1878, Caroline Still Anderson officially began her medical career. That’s when she first encountered difficulties that were caused by racism. Prior to the internship, she applied to Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children, but was rejected by the board of directors. She did not lose hope and certainly did not plan to give up.

As a result, the application was approved and Ms. Still received permission to complete her internship at the chosen medical institution. All because Caroline demonstrated her extraordinary abilities, which impressed all the members of the committee. 

First black female doctor in the state

After a year, the internship came to an end. Caroline Still decided to return to her hometown, where she planned to implement a colossal reform in the medical industry. In Philadelphia, she opened an outpatient clinic in the church of her husband, Matthew Anderson, whom she married in 1880. Soon after, she started a private medical practice. Caroline Still Anderson became the first black woman doctor in the state. 

Caroline Still Anderson with her daughters. Source: photo by digital.library.temple.edu

After working as a doctor in 1889, she realized that she wanted to resume her teaching career, not as a teacher of art, but as a teacher of medicine. She organized public speeches, taught hygiene and physiology. She practiced medicine in Quaker institutions (Religious Society of Friends). This is the Christian name for Protestants known for their pacifist attitudes and humanistic orientation. Quakers profess the value that every person has the ability to access God’s spirit within them. In general, their teachings are based on the Christian doctrine of faith and salvation. The idea of direct contact with the divine is at the heart of all Friends’ churches and meetings of their members. Their largest concentration is in Africa. 

She was also the treasurer of the alumni association of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Caroline Still Anderson and Matthew Anderson helped poor women and children in Philadelphia.

Source: photo by stillfamily.library.temple.edu 

Caroline Still Anderson’s medical career ended in 1914. The woman survived a paralytic stroke. She stopped all her public speaking, teaching and medical activities. In 1919, she died of complications caused by this dangerous disease. She was 70 years old.

Caroline Anderson’s fight for rights

Berean Dispensary was under the full control of the doctor. In the early twentieth century, she fought to establish the first Black YMCA in her hometown. This non-profit organization still exists. It focuses on the empowerment, leadership and the rights of women and young girls in more than 100 countries. Caroline’s Association aimed to fight for the rights of black women, which was no less important at the time. 

Source: photo stillfamily.library.temple.edu

In Philadelphia, she was a member of the Women’s Medical Society and served on the board of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People (HAICP). A similar medical society already existed in the British community. Its main purpose was to promote employment, to treat children and women and to work as midwives. As for the HAICP, it carried the status of one of the first institutions to provide care for the elderly and even housing. These facilities were founded by wealthy black and white Quakers who were aware of the problems associated with slavery and discrimination against blacks in old age. 

The official name of the home is the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, although in fact it was known as the Shelter for the Aged and Infirm Colored People.

Berean Manual Training and Industrial School

In 1889, together with her husband, she founded the Berean Manual Training and Industrial School. The institution was a response to the growing social problems of urban industry. The school was attended by African American workers who migrated to Philadelphia. It was an important step in the development of the US educational system.

Source: photo by goinnorth.org 

At the Berean Manual Training and Industrial School, Caroline Anderson worked as an assistant director and teacher.