FRONTLINE: Retrospect

Ellwood Takes a Drive
One good deed is admirable—two is even better.


Ellwood Takes a Drive
One good deed is admirable—two is even better.

Among non-profits, this is the age of collaboration. Groups requesting money are often told to find partners that will share expenses and resources. Donors believe they get more bang for their buck from group efforts.

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When the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened its recent Wyeth exhibit, for instance, it partnered with Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, borrowed paintings from dozens of institutions and—ahem—was supported by three big corporate donors.

One stone. Whole buncha birds.

It’s not a new strategy. In 1855, Dr. Ellwood Harvey of Delaware County found a way to benefit two good causes with one long carriage ride. Dean of faculty at the struggling Female (later, Woman’s) Medical College of Pennsylvania (FMCP), Harvey knew students needed a $300 anatomical dummy to substitute for hard-to-get cadavers. In addition, Harvey, who opposed slavery, learned that abolitionists had offered $300 to whomever rescued a runaway slave hiding from her master near Washington, D.C.

One stone, two birds. Harvey picked up a disguised Ann Maria Weems in the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue,
collected the reward and bought his students their device.

Born in Chadds Ford, Harvey was the eldest of his parents’ four children. But both Eli and Rachel (Hollingsworth) Harvey had both been married previously and brought children from those unions. The house was always full and, perhaps, the experience alerted Harvey early to the need to prepare for a paying career.

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In the process, he broke from his family in several respects. His parents were Quakers, but Harvey became an Episcopalian. Eli Harvey was a malster, but the son set his eye on medicine, graduating from University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1843. He paid his way by giving lectures to younger students.

Harvey’s decision to attend medical school was typical of his generation. For centuries, beginning physicians had mastered their craft like beginning carpenters—as apprentices who worked with established professionals and learned on the job. No academic training was required. Not until 1893—after Harvey’s death—did the Johns Hopkins medical school decide to accept only college graduates with a minimum one year’s training in the natural sciences.

Harvey was part of what social historians William Strauss and Neil Howe (authors of Generations) remember as the Transcendental Generation—idealistic, even extremist, and unusually focused on social progress. Born between 1792 and 1821, Transcendentals included John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Susan B. Anthony.

Harvey was all about progress. In addition to getting his own medical education the modern way, he helped to professionalize medicine throughout Delaware County. In 1850, he was one of three physicians who called the organizational meeting of the Delaware County Medical Society. Significantly, the society was open only to medical school graduates—a
policy intended, over time, to encourage newcomers to seek formal education.

In 1845, Harvey represented Birming-ham Township at a public meeting to consider “the propriety of removing the [county seat] to a more central position.” County government had been at Chester since Delaware County was formed in 1789. And for most of those years, residents of the northern townships had complained that Chester was too far away. Harvey initially opposed the move “in accordance with my own convictions and the instructions of my constituents,” he wrote.

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However, he eventually switched sides and voted to give residents their say in a referendum. “I thought Media would be a miserably poor place and Chester very prosperous,” Harvey later wrote. “Media has done better than I expected, and so has Chester.”


IN 1853, Ellwood Harvey became nationally known for an 1845 letter he had written to the abolitionist Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper, describing his revulsion at a slave auction he’d witnessed in Virginia.

“The slaves were told they would not be sold,” wrote Harvey, “and were collected in front of the quarters, gazing on the assembled multitude. The land being sold, the auctioneer’s loud voice was heard, ‘bring up the niggers.’”

The women, he wrote, snatched up their babies and ran screaming into the huts. The children hid. The men stood in despair. The auctioneer announced that no warranties were included.

“A few old men were sold at prices from $13 to $25,” Harvey wrote, “and it was painful to see old men, with beards white with years of toil and suffering, tell of their diseases and worthlessness, fearing they would be bought by traders for the southern market.”

The mother of a 12-year-old boy rushed forward, crying, “My son, oh my boy, they will take away my dear …” But she was pushed back in the house, the door shut in her face, and the sale went on. “He was sold for about $250,” according to Harvey. “The monsters who tore this child from his mother would sell your child and mine if they had the power.”

Harvey’s letter had already been well circulated in abolitionist circles. In 1853, however, it became truly notorious when Harriet Beecher Stowe included it in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she defended her earlier book by citing examples of slavery’s brutality. The Key listed examples of slaves murdered and brutalized without consequences, along with the statutes that allowed it and statements by church leaders that condoned it.

“Defending her novel led [Stowe] to mount a more aggressive attack on slavery in the South than the novel itself had,” wrote University of Virginia historian Stephen Railton. “In the novel, she works hard to be sympathetic to white southerners as well as black slaves; here, her prose seems much angrier, both morally and rhetorically more contemptuous.”

The furor probably explains why Harvey is often referred to simply as “Dr. H” in accounts of his activities. That is how black abolitionist William Still identified the man who brought Weems to his door. That was also how Still identified his family’s physician, now known to have been Harvey. Harvey was involved in many respectable activities, but abolitionists were thought to be troublemakers. Perhaps he decided that he didn’t need more notoriety.

Educating women as physicians, for instance, involved plenty of notoriety for one man. Founded by Quakers in 1850, FMCP was the world’s first medical
college for women. Its founders believed that understanding their own bodies was literally a life-or-death necessity for women. Ann Preston, one of the school’s first graduates and later its dean, noticed that—in her family of six boys and three girls—all of her brothers had lived, but her two sisters had died. Sedentary and indoor occupations and tightly bound clothes, she decided, were at least partly to blame.

Regardless, the college was not welcomed. In 1858, the Philadelphia Medical Society spoke out against FMCP, thus barring women from educational clinics and medical societies. In 1869, Preston negotiated with Pennsylvania Hospital to allow her students to attend general clinics. The male students greeted them with hisses and paper wads.

Harvey was involved from the beginning. In 1852, he was named professor of “materia medica” (pharmacology) and general therapeutics. In 1853, he added surgery to his schedule. Next, obstetrics. Then, chemistry. As each (underpaid) professor left, he took over. At times, he seems to have been the only professor. Finally, Harvey became dean of faculty.

Weems, who belonged to a Maryland family, lost her parents and siblings when they were sold in 1853. The rest of the Weems eventually reached freedom and attempted to buy Ann out of slavery. Her owner refused. In the autumn of 1855, friends had her snatched. News of the affair got into the papers and made flight north too risky. By November, she was still hiding in the attic of an elderly Washington lawyer, Jacob Bigelow.

Meanwhile, FMCP students were trying to learn the body’s internal arrangement by looking at pictures. A so-called dissection mannequin—a man-made dummy with removable organs—would be an acceptable substitute.

“That the girl ought to be freed was clear to Dr. Harvey’s mind,” reported a FMCP newsletter, The Progress, in 1879. “And it was equally clear that if he was the man to do it, it would be a good
deed and he would get the money for
his apparatus.”

Passing word through his abolitionist network that he was on his way, Harvey took a train to Baltimore, hired a buggy and drove to Washington. Bigelow and his servant “boy,” Joe Wright, met him on a curb in front of the White House, within which Pierce—though a New Englander—was following a pro-slavery course. “Joe” climbed in, Harvey snapped the reins and off they went.

The pair was challenged at several tollgates and stayed one night at the tavern of a slave owner who joked about Harvey’s runaway. Crossing the Susquehanna, Harvey almost lost Weems to a gang of men who doubted her story, until the doctor took off his coat and “called them to account” for troubling his boy. A couple of days later, Harvey delivered Weems to Still’s house in Philadelphia. She later reached Buxton, Ontario, then vanished from history. All that’s left is a daguerreotype commissioned by abolitionist Lewis Tappan, showing her in the boy’s clothes in which she had escaped. And soon after, FMCP students had their dummy.

Harvey taught two more years at the school, then resigned to focus on his
medical practice.

“I gave five years to the good cause and was compelled by poverty to quit and do something more lucrative,” wrote Harvey in 1871 regarding his support for female medical education. “I regret nothing; I claim nothing; I had my reward in moral and intellectual development. My family never suffered, though we were much straightened. I hoped to do my duty and feel satisfied.”

One stone. Many birds.


E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at


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