Matilda Arabella Evans was the first African American woman licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina. Evans was an advocate for improved health care for African Americans, particularly children. Her survey of Black school children’s health in Columbia, served as the basis for a permanent health examination program within the South Carolina public school system. She also founded the Columbia Clinic Association, which provided health services and health education to families. She extended the program when she established the Negro Health Association of South Carolina, to educate families throughout the state on proper health care procedures.
Matilda Arabella Evans was born on May 13, 1872 to Anderson and Harriet Evans in Aiken, South Carolina; the oldest of three children and spent much of the beginning of her life working in fields alongside her family. She attended the Schofield Industrial School, which was established by Martha Schofield, a Philadelphia Quaker. Encouraged by Schofield, Evans enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio, attended on scholarship for almost four years and left before graduating in 1891 to pursue a medical career.
After teaching at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia and at the Schofield School, Evans enrolled at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1893. In 1897 after receiving a medical degree, she abandoned her goal of becoming a medical missionary in Africa and moved instead to Columbia, South Carolina, where she set up a successful practice. As the first African American woman licensed to practice in South Carolina, she treated both whyte and black patients, and was in great demand. Evans built up a large clientele of wealthy whyte women, who paid her sufficiently to allow her to treat poor black women and children for free. She practiced obstetrics, gynecology, and surgery, and cared for patients in her own home until she established the Taylor Lane Hospital (the first black hospital in the city of Columbia) in 1901. By 1907 Evans was able to write to Alfred Jones, Bursar at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, “I have done well, and have a very large practice among all classes of people… I have had unlimited success… Since I have returned to my native state, others have been inspired and have gone to our beloved college to take degrees.” She was writing on behalf of a promising young African American woman who wanted to attend WMCP but was in need of scholarship assistance. Evans later established another hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and Training School for Nurses, that she directed until 1918.
St. Luke’s Hospital was the fourth hospital in the country to operate a school for nurses. Today St. Luke’s School of Nursing is the nation’s oldest hospital-based, diploma school in continuous operation. The reputation of the school flourished during the 1920s and ’30s. During World War II, St. Luke’s School of Nursing was approved for the Cadet Nurse Corps program. In 1962, the school was awarded full accreditation from the National League for Nursing, and was fully reaccredited in 1997.
Matilda Evans was highly active in her community. In addition to establishing Taylor Lane Hospital (which became St. Luke’s Hospital and Training School for Nurses after a fire destroyed the first hospital), she established a community health organization, a community center and a boys’ pool (Dr. Evans Park and Swimming Pool) among other countless benefits to Columbia’s Black community. Throughout her life Evans also adopted seven children and eventually fostered over two dozen more. She also was responsible for largely contributing to the buying and equipping of The Dr. Evans Park and Swimming Pool for the public. Evans also conducted a survey of Black school-age children in Columbia, South Carolina and found serious problems with their health care; she used the results to implement routine health examinations in schools.
Evans had a special concern for Black children. She believed that health care should be a citizenship right and a governmental responsibility, much like education. She strongly advocated public health care and petitioned the State Board of Health of South Carolina to provide free vaccines for black children. In 1916 Evans created the Negro Health Association of South Carolina and two years later in 1918 she volunteered in the Medical Service Corps of the United States Army during World War I. In 1922 Dr. Matilda Evans became the only Black woman in the United States to serve as the president of a state medical association when she became president of South Carolina’s Palmetto M.A. Evans also served as a regional Vice President of the National Medical Association. Her work with poor communities encouraged her to found the Columbia Clinic Association in 1930, which provided health services (such as vaccinations and check-ups) and health education to impoverished families. Though the Negro Health Association of South Carolina Evans continued her mission of health education. Evans also founded the Good Health Association of South Carolina to help convince and inspire people that they could improve their own health by following sound health practices and safe sanitary habits.
Charity, compassion, and a love of children were the hallmarks of Evans’ career; she charged only nominal fees. She rode bicycles, horses and buggies to visit the sick who were unable to go to her surgery for any reason. She provided for school physical examinations and immunizations, which in turn saved the lives of countless young children, and in 1930, operated a clinic that was free for African-American children who needed medical treatment and vaccinations. Incredibly, Evans also found the time to raise 11 children who needed a home. Many of the children she became a mother to were children who were left at her practice, but she also brought up five children from relatives who were deceased. She provided them all with the opportunity for a college education. People, young and old, enjoyed the facilities that she shared at a recreational center which she had built on her 20-acre farm. Evans loved to swim, dance, knit and play the piano. Evans ran her own farm like the one she grew up on and founded a weekly newspaper, The Negro Health Journal of South Carolina, and offered a program of recreational activities for underprivileged boys. Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia has named an award in her honor, which is truly deserving of the name and legacy she left behind.
Evans never married. At the age of 63, on November 17, 1935, Matilda Arabelle Evans died in Columbia, South Carolina.