Waring Library Society Medical History Moment

By Sarah Nesnow and Dulaney Wilson

Born in 1861, Sarah Campbell Allan was raised in Charleston, South Carolina in a Victorian atmosphere of means and privilege that also emphasized the importance of both education and achievement. Her family’s strong Presbyterian faith and belief in service to others certainly influenced Sarah in her studies and her choice of medicine as a career. Her exact motive for becoming a physician is unknown, yet she persisted in the face of significant obstacles and disappointments.

Both of her parents were immigrants; her father, James Allan, came to Charleston as a young boy with his parents, eventually becoming a watchmaker and owner of a successful jewelry company. Her mother, Amey Sarah Hobcraft, born in sight of London’s ancient city walls, came to visit family in Charleston in 1856. While here, she met and married James following a whirlwind romance. Sarah was the third of 11 children born to the couple; her two elder siblings died in childhood, leaving Sarah as the oldest. She attended the Charleston Female Seminary and graduated in 1880.

Her father supported her dreams of becoming a doctor, encouraging her to continue by any means necessary after being denied entrance to the Medical College of the state of South Carolina (today’s MUSC). She enrolled in the South Carolina College for Women’s new “preliminary medical course for women” to prepare for medical school. In 1891, she matriculated at the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, an institution founded in 1868 to train women for the medical profession. Sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, pioneer women doctors, founded this operation in the Empire State. After Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England, Dr. Emily Blackwell continued to teach at the medical school and Sarah Campbell Allan was one of her students.

In June 1894, Sarah graduated from medical school, returning to S.C. to take the newly instituted South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners licensure exam. In October 1894, she sat for the exam, the sole woman in a group of 15. She achieved the highest overall score on the test, including a perfect score on the obstetrics section, far outstripping her male competitors. The State Board of Medical Examiners issued her medical license number 40. After the test, she completed a year of post-graduate study at Johns Hopkins University, working at the Thomas Wilson Sanitarium for Children of Baltimore City in Mount Wilson, Maryland.

Dr. Allan’s 1895 appointment as assistant physician at the South Carolina State Lunatic Asylum by Gov. John Gary Evans generated much controversy. Expected to use the appointment to advance a political agenda, Governor Evans’ unconventional choice was hailed as a breakthrough for women’s healthcare, particularly women’s psychiatric care, by organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. A diary Dr. Allan kept from January to May of 1900 contain brief entries that illustrate the heavy workload she carried and the state of psychiatric and medical care at the beginning of the 20th century. Dr. Allan stayed at the asylum until 1907, when she returned to Charleston to care for her ailing father.

Surprisingly, Dr. Allan never returned to the full-time practice of medicine following the death of her father. At the age of 46, she would have had no idea that her life was less than half over. The necessary study she would need to catch up on her professional knowledge might have seemed too difficult to acquire. Instead, she kept sharp by occasionally consulting on psychiatric cases for colleagues in Charleston. Her deep avocation for community service was fed by her work with the Presbyterian Home Society and the Young Women’s Christian Association. She was also active in her church, Second Presbyterian Church.

She loved to travel and spend time with her family, often in a vacation home in the mountains of North Carolina that she shared with her sister. A family story reveals her mischievous sense of humor claiming she had been known to tell people that she spent 12 years in a lunatic asylum without explaining her role as a doctor, not a patient. Further evidence is found in a letter she wrote to the editor of the Charleston News and Courier titled “A Warning to Girls — Some of the Abominations of the First Year at a Medical School for Women,” a humorous snapshot of the personality types encountered among first year medical students.

The Sarah Campbell Allan, M.D. Papers are available at the Waring Historical Library at the Medical University of South Carolina. They have recently been digitized and are accessible online. The library also has a biographical file on Dr. Allan. For more information on this collection, please contact the Waring Historical Library.

 

The Waring Library Society is a “friends of the library” organization that supports the mission of the Waring Historical Library. Named for Joseph I. Waring, Jr., its first director, the Waring Historical Library preserves rare books, manuscripts, and museum artifacts documenting the history of the health sciences in South Carolina and the Southeast. To learn more about the Waring’s programs and events or to become a member of the society, please visit waring.library.musc.edu.

 

 

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.