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From the Collections: Dr. Eliza Grier

Portrait of Eliza Grier, MD. (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

We often receive reference requests for images and information about Dr. Eliza Grier, who graduated from Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1897. Although she was not the first African-American graduate of WMC (that honor went to Rebecca Cole in 1867 – the second African-American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States), we have considerably more documentation on her (difficult) life.

We do not have details of her early life beyond the fact that she was born into slavery; she spent the better part of the 1880s putting herself through the Advanced Normal course of study at Fisk University over a period of seven years in which she alternated a year of study with a year of picking cotton in order to support herself. She wrote to WMC to ask whether scholarships or other funding sources might be available, asking if the College administrators were aware of '…any possible way that might be provided for an emancipated slave to receive any help into so lofty a profession.'

Some help was evidently provided, although not so much that Grier could attend to her studies without seeking outside employment; as a result, it took her seven years to complete her M.D. In 1898, the year following Grier's graduation, WMC Dean Dr. Clara Marshall wrote that Grier had '…been constantly harassed by want of adequate means of support' during her WMC career.

In any event, Grier returned to her hometown of Atlanta and presented herself to the Georgia state board of medical examiners (rather to the surprise of the all-white, all male membership) and was found to be '...thoroughly informed in her profession.' The event was deemed newsworthy; in this clipping (scroll to the bottom right), the North American Medical Review felt compelled to remark upon the licensing of this 'coal black woman doctor' who would '...make no discrimination on account of color' in her practice.

Unfortunately, Grier's triumph over circumstances was short-lived; she became ill in 1901 and, unable to practice, sent a desperate letter to Susan B. Anthony asking for help, which Anthony duly forwarded to Grier's alma mater. Unfortunately, that is where our record ends – there is no indication in the records here as to whether or not some assistance was sent, and Grier died shortly thereafter in 1902.

This is something of a common pattern among some of 'our' 19th century graduates – women who may have come to the medical profession somewhat later in life (often from teaching) finally obtain their medical degrees and then suddenly die after a year or two of practice. I'm sure there's a PhD in there for someone…