The essence of family is that even when your parents depart, you get to tap into the warmth, guidance and love of other relations. And for Matilda Arabella Evans, she had her grandmother, Edith Willis Corley—a lay midwife—and her herbalist uncle who treated people without access to physicians to thank for her emergence as a notable health practitioner.
Evans emerged as the first woman as well as the first African-American woman surgeon licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina. She was an obstetrician, gynecologist, public health advocate, author as well as educator and humanitarian. Additionally, she founded and ran two hospitals.
Dr. Evans was born in 1872 to Anderson and Harriet Evans in Aiken, SC. At eight, her mother passed coming under the wing of grandmother and uncle and thanks to their health care work, Evans purposed to become a physician and for more than three decades did just that.
At age 13, she studied at Schofield Normal and Industrial School founded by prominent Quaker and abolitionist Martha Schofield.
Given Matilda’s brilliance, Ms. Schofield assisted her to obtain a scholarship to attend Oberlin College, OH. She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia in 1897 where she received an M.D. with specialties in obstetrics, gynecology and surgery.
With the system serving as a barrier where no medical facilities allowed African-American physicians to admit and treat patients, Dr. Evans opened her practice in Columbia. She quickly 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.”
On October 18, 1930, Dr. Evans declared: “I have solemnly sworn that Columbia shall have a clinic that shall in no way be inferior to any in all this country.”
She fulfilled her pledge.
It was Dr. Evans who found many children with undiagnosed diseases and ailments in Columbia’s public school system. 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.
With the huge numbers, Dr. Evans quickly secured a permanent facility at 1231 Harden Street and over the next three months oversaw the examinations of 3,800 patients and provided 800 vaccinations, all “without making any charges to the parents of the children.”
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.
“The health conditions among our people in the city is alarming. I was distressed to find so many children under weight, under nourished, and actually suffering for the lack of some simple treatment that would give better health. Before we were able to set up our work we had to educate people up to the idea of having such an institution. We went from church to church and from school to school and as a result we find more work to do than we can handle. I believe the people will support the new clinic nicely. Already friends have paid the rent for two months, given furniture and other equipment and have assured us that in the near future we may be able to add to the word a day nursery. We wish the public to know that services at the clinic is free,” Dr. Evans submitted on September 17, 1930.
Over the next five years, the rechristened Evans Clinic provided free health care to more than 12,000 African-American children.
Although white-owned newspapers, including The State, referred to her as Columbia’s first “negro woman physician,” she was actually the first licensed female physician in 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.
The annual Matilda Evans Award is held in her honor while a historical marker is also situated outside her former residence at 2027 Taylor Street.