On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws within the
“separate but equal” doctrine. That was the world Edna D. Kennedy had been born into
just five weeks prior. As an African American, she would face challenges in a society
that did not offer separate but equal opportunities into the medical profession. Not
only would her race limit her access to medical schools; so, too, would her gender.
Despite the odds, this native Philadelphian—known as Edna K. Williams, DO, throughout
her career—would follow in the footsteps of Meta L. Christy, DO 1921, as PCOM’s second African American alumna and a role model for the community and
other Black medical professionals.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Kennedy family resided at 625 Pine Street, then
an African American and immigrant neighborhood. Edna, the daughter of a laborer, was
the eldest of three. By 1910, the family, including one grandmother, moved into a
two-story row house in South Philadelphia. Edna attended Philadelphia High School
for Girls, followed by a practical education at the Derrick Shorthand School of Philadelphia.
Stenography was a reasonable career expectation for a Black woman of her times—and,
as it turned out, not a bad skill to have for taking notes as a medical student!
But before medical school came marriage, a baby, a divorce and another marriage, all
between 1918 and 1920. Husband Dayton H. C. Wilson, a bellman and, in later years,
a physician, spent part of their newlywed year on active duty for World War I. While
he was deployed, daughter Phylomina was born. By 1920, the estranged couple was living
a block apart—with their respective parents—and Edna Kennedy was employed as a stenographer
for a fraternal society. In August 1920, she married Alphonzo L. Williams, a chauffer
from the District of Columbia, and this time took her husband’s name.
Turpy, the treatment guru
As the 1920s roared, this wife and mother hunkered down for life as a medical student,
matriculating at PCOM’s Spring Garden Street location in 1922. Classmates came to
know her as “Turpy.” Comments published in the PCOM Synapsis yearbook hint at her drive and perseverance. In 1925: “We have naught but praises
for this young lady as she pioneers in this great science. She exhibits great pluck
in carrying on.” And, in 1926:
I see here none other than Edna Williams, hard at work over a new demonstrating machine
which enables the beginner to locate lesions by a crier which says “that’s it” or
“no, you’re wrong.” Edna has tried many models, as may be seen by looking around,
but this machine is no doubt “the” one.
At age 30, Dr. Williams graduated from PCOM, one of 18 women and the only African
American woman in her class.
Dr. Williams started a family practice in a rented three-story row house in Philadelphia’s
Brewerytown neighborhood. She also opened an office in New Jersey. She kept fees very
low, particularly to make health care affordable during the Great Depression. By 1935,
husband Alphonzo had returned to Washington. Dr. Williams and Phylomina relocated
to 219 East Upsal Street (East Mt. Airy), where she ran her family practice that included
delivering babies, sometimes in the middle of the night. Patients referred to her
as “the treatment guru.”
Although small in stature—barely five feet tall—Dr. Williams had a stool to stand
on and strong therapeutic hands to perform osteopathic manipulative treatment. Valerie Griffin, who later worked with Dr. Williams at Gemedco Medical Center in
Germantown, recalls how “She surprised a lot of the 200- to 250-pound men who came
for treatment and manipulation with the strength of her hands.”
A call to minister
While Dr. Williams healed patients physically with her hands, by 1945, she was applying
her religious convictions to minister in other ways. Dr. Williams was affiliated with
the Third Christian Scientist denomination as a lecturer and teacher. She orated about
pathways to spiritual, mental, financial and physical health by channeling God’s healing
life currents; she also discussed reincarnation. One could say she exemplified a holistic
approach to medicine. Dr. Williams established a chapel on the second floor of a brownstone
at 2307 North Broad Street, where she conducted free weekly lectures, sometimes four
times each Sunday.
By 1949, a growing following likely led Dr. Williams to relocate her chapel to 902
Walnut Street and expand her ministry to “Dr. Edna K. Williams Associates.” Her program
spread beyond Philadelphia to bases in Baltimore, New York, and Washington, DC, and
advertisements for her lectures appeared in Pittsburgh newspapers in the mid-1950s.
In her spare time, Dr. Williams enjoyed singing, which she combined with community
service. She belonged to the Western Helpers’ Club, which sang Christmas carols to
patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She also performed for a Germantown
Not the retiring type
When Dr. Williams retired from private practice, she did not stay in retirement for
long. William M. King, DO ’62, who established the Gemedco Medical Center in 1976,
convinced Dr. Williams to come out of retirement to work at the community medical
center. She started off working one day a week, seeing 20 to 25 patients a day. Eventually,
she slowed down to one morning a week and five to six patients—still a remarkable
effort given that she was approaching 90.
In 1989, Dr. Williams retired for good at age 92. That same year, PCOM established
a scholarship in her name to assist minority and ethnic students. She suffered a stroke
and the loss of her daughter before passing away on September 28, 1993. Ms. Griffin
remembers Dr. Williams as
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quiet and soft spoken, but firm, and a very warm and kind-hearted spirit. She was
always willing to share her knowledge of perseverance—going through medical school,
how hard it was as a woman and a woman of color. She was very much a role model, encouraging
others to keep striving and persevere.