Skip to main content

Edna K. Williams, DO 1926 
The Diminutive Osteopath with Mighty Hands and Spirit

April 14, 2022

PCOM alum and Black female osteopathic physician Edna K. Williams, DO 1926On 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 flower club.

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

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.

About Digest Magazine

Digest, the magazine for alumni and friends of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, is published by the Office of Marketing and Communications. The magazine reports on osteopathic and other professional trends of interest to alumni of the College’s Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) and graduate programs at PCOM, PCOM Georgia and PCOM South Georgia.