Dr. Clara Marshall was the first woman appointed to the staff of the Blockley Medical College for Men (part of the Philadelphia Hospital at Blockely), and was among the first women to receive a staff appointment at a charitable or correctional institution. As dean from 1886 to 1917, she helped expand and modernize the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and became a powerful role model for women entering medicine.
One of three daughters in a prominent Quaker family, Marshall was born in 1847. Clara Marshall grew up in a stimulating intellectual and medical community near her home in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Her neighbors included Ann Preston, the first woman dean of the Female (later Woman's) Medical College of Pennsylvania, who lived just a block away from her family, and Sarah Adamson Dolley.
Thanks to a bequest from her maternal grandfather, she had few financial concerns. As a young woman, Clara Marshall was a schoolteacher for several years, but in 1871, at age 24, she decided to enroll in the Woman's Medical College, and received her medical degree four years later. She must have been an exceptional student, for immediately upon graduation the College made her an instructor in materia medica. To gain expertise, Dr. Marshall enrolled for a year of graduate study at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. In 1876, her appointment as professor of materia medica and therapeutics at Woman's Medical College generated some controversy. Members of the College board noted that Marshall had scarce experience in "therapeutics," having never been a practicing physician and showing few prospects of becoming one. But Marshall discredited their assessments, continuing to advertise private office hours in city directories until at least 1912 and remaining professor of materia medica and therapeutics until 1905.
Recognizing the need for closer ties between Woman's Medical College and other Philadelphia hospitals, Dr. Marshall secured appointments at several institutions that were attached to the huge Philadelphia Almshouse, popularly known as "Blockley." In 1882, she became a demonstrator in obstetrics at the Blockley Medical College for Men, which was part of the Philadelphia Hospital. The first woman to be appointed to the staff of this institution, Marshall lectured to large classes of male students. Pioneering another role for women, Marshall secured a further appointment in 1886 as an attending physician at Philadelphia's House of Refuge, placing her among the nation's first women doctors to enter the staff of a state charitable or correctional institution.
An even greater challenge faced Marshall in 1886, upon the death of Rachel Bodley, dean of the Woman's Medical College. Dr. Marshall was elected to replace Dr. Bodley and spent the next thirty-one years administering the college. Despite a continual shortage of funds, she managed to introduce many key changes. In 1893, she oversaw an expansion of the College's curriculum from three to four years. Recognizing the importance of the new field of bacteriology, she established the first professorship in this science in 1896 and oversaw the construction of a well-equipped laboratory to train students in the field. Over the course of her tenure, the number of subjects taught at the college expanded dramatically and an entrance examination was introduced. But perhaps her most important legacy as dean of the college was to spearhead a campaign to expand clinical experience for women physicians and interns.
Beginning the enormous task of providing the college with a teaching hospital, Dr. Marshall set out to generate funds and government support. By 1904, she had raised enough money to open the small Pavilion Hospital, staffed by Woman's Medical College faculty. Three years later, she presided over the beginnings of what would become the College Hospital, a seven-story modern building that was completed in 1913.
Dr. Marshall won election to her district's school board in 1897 and she held the position of school director in Philadelphia's Eighth Ward for many years. She also supported the movement for women's suffrage, giving an address at the fiftieth anniversary convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1898. Earlier, Dr. Marshall had led successful efforts to open local Philadelphia medical societies to women, and she was a member of two of Philadelphia's activist women's clubs, the New Century (which she helped found in 1877) and the Civic.
Dr. Marshall withdrew from teaching in 1906 and retired from her position as dean of the Woman's Medical College in 1917, to devote time to her rapidly growing private practice, which she maintained almost until her death in 1931. After a long and brilliant career, she could take credit for bringing the Woman's Medical College into the new era of scientific medical education.