When Alice Woodby was born in 1865 in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania, nobody could have imagined that later in life she would make medical history on two continents. Her parents died when she was just 7 and she suffered the loss of her vision for three years, however Alice persisted and excelled at local public schools and the Hampton Institute in Virginia. She received a baccalaureate degree in 1889 from the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia and then enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Graduating in 1892 with a medical degree, Alice moved to Augusta to become a resident physician and nursing instructor at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. At that time, she was the only African American female physician in Georgia. She met Cornelius McKane, a Savannah physician and surgeon and their mutual interest in medicine led them to a relationship that culminated in marriage in February 1893. Cornelius was the grandson of a Liberian King and, in addition to medicine, was active in the clergy, writing, orating and philanthrophy.
The newlywed life for the McKanes was busy as they immediately teamed to develop a nurse training program for African Americans in Savannah. Just four months after their wedding, an advertisement in the Savannah Tribune announced the first session of the McKane Training School for Nurses beginning September. 1, 1893. Alice and Cornelius made medical history as the school was southeast Georgia’s first training school for nurses. Designed as a two-year course for both males and females, tuition was $4 a month but was free for students preparing for missionary work in Africa. Cornelius assisted with the school but Alice was in charge and served as principal.
The school’s first commencement on May 2, 1895, awarded three nursing diplomas. Shortly after, the McKanes left for Monrovia, Liberia, in west Africa. The U.S. government appointed Alice a medical examiner for African American Civil War veterans who had moved from America to Liberia. The McKanes opened Monrovia’s first hospital, complete with a drugstore and a nurse training school similar to the one they started in Savannah. Another medical first for Alice.
Their hard work in Monrovia brought them great rewards, but unfortunately Alice contracted African fever there and the couple was forced to return to the United States. Upon regaining her health, Alice opened a practice on Savannah’s West Broad Street, specializing in gynecology and women’s diseases. She petitioned the Chatham County Superior Court and obtained a charter to operate a hospital for women and children as well as a training school for nurses. Alice was a determined woman who could get things done and the McKane Hospital opened Nov. 2, 1896. In 1901, the hospital was turned over to a group of local African American physicians and became the Charity Hospital.
In 1909 Alice and Cornelius moved to Boston where he died three years later. She continued her medical career and became an advocate for women’s suffrage, a NAACP member and a Republican committeewoman. Alice also published a book on healing in 1913, The Fraternal Sick Book, and a book of poetry, Clover Leaves, in 1914.
The Georgia Historical Society
“Black Medical Pioneers in Savannah, 1892-1909:
Cornelius McKane and Alice Woodby McKane” by Elmore, Charles J.
The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. LxxxV111, No. 2, Summer 2004