Share Your Stories: Philadelphia’s Groundbreaking Female Medical College of Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA250
3 min readSep 12, 2023

The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, initially known as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, was established in 1850 as the first medical school worldwide dedicated to educating women and granting them an M.D. degree. It was founded in Philadelphia by a forward-thinking group of Quakers and a businessman who believed in equal access to education for women, and recognized their potential as skilled physicians. In 1867, the institution was renamed the Woman’s Medical College, and it played a pivotal role in training numerous women doctors from various countries, many of whom pursued medical careers internationally. Today, it is known as the Drexel University College of Medicine.

Throughout its illustrious history, WMCP prided itself on promoting diversity within its student body, admitting people without regard to their race, ethnicity, or religion. Notably, the college graduated pioneering African-American women physicians, including Rebecca Cole (1846–1922) and Eliza Grier (1864–1902). Rebecca Cole was the second black woman physician in the United States, practicing medicine for over five decades and co-founding the Physician Women’s Directory with fellow WMCP alumna Dr. Charlotte Abby. Eliza Grier, born as an enslaved person, overcame significant obstacles to earn her M.D. in 1898.

WMCP also educated Anandibai Joshee (1865–87), the first Indian woman doctor. Graduating in 1886, Joshee broke barriers as the first high-caste Hindu woman to receive a medical degree. Born in Bombay, she came to the United States to pursue her education. The college’s dean at the time, Rachel Bodley, provided Joshee with accommodation and support, and accommodate her dietary needs. Following her medical studies, Joshee accepted a position as Physician-in-Charge at the female ward of the Albert Edward Hospital in Kolhapur, India. Her achievements earned the college a congratulatory note from Queen Victoria herself.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte (1865–1915), the first Native American woman doctor, stands as another remarkable WMCP alumna. During her career, she served over 1,300 people across 450 square miles, offering not only medical care but also financial advice and assistance with family disputes at all hours of the day and night. Despite completing a three-year program in just two years at WMCP, Susan La Flesche graduated at the top of her class in 1889. She returned to provide healthcare to the Omaha people, responsible for approximately twelve hundred adults and youth at a government boarding school.

WMCP’s legacy extended globally, with doctors coming from China, Syria, and various South American countries. WMCP welcomed Jewish students, reflecting its early acceptance of the growing immigrant community in South Philadelphia. In the mid-1940s, the college admitted five Japanese-American students, some of whom had experienced internment in camps. These extraordinary women doctors went on to serve their respective communities with distinction.

Want to learn more?

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia is an extensive collaborative project that provides a wealth of information about the history, culture, and people of the Philadelphia region. It covers neighborhoods, institutions, events, industries, and influential figures. The content is written by historians, scholars, and experts, and is regularly updated.

Read more about the revolutionary women who studied at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania at their website:

https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/womans-medical-college-of-pennsylvania/

This blog is part of PHILADELPHIA250’s Share Your Stories program, which celebrates all Philadelphians, past and present who are a part of our history — making sure no one is left out of the story. If you have a story about a special person or place you’d like to share with us, please contact us through this form.

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PHILADELPHIA250

Coordinating the United States’ 250th anniversary in Philadelphia. Creating a commemoration that is truly by the people, for the people.