The founding of the West Philadelphia Hospital for Women was largely the work of Dr. Elizabeth Comly (1842-1912). She was the daughter of Emmor Comly and Hannah Bowman of Byberry, Philadelphia Co. He had a farm at what is now the intersection of Comly Rd. and Academy Rd. In 1880, Elizabeth lived at 3720 Spring Garden St. with her sister and brother-in-law, Joshua R. and Deborah Howell. She was 37 years old and on the medical staff of Woman's Medical College. Her sister died at age 46 in 1882. About 1886, Elizabeth and Joshua moved to 3404 Spring Garden St. They married in 1888 and Elizabeth added his name to her’s.
Dr. Comly Howell was very aware that women “had indeed awakened to the fact that she has more to do in this world than simply to see that her home is well ordered and attractive…” In a lecture published in 1878 entitled “Women’s Work,” she outlined the professional advances made by women in many fields. However, she noted that: “In no field of labor have woman met with more opposition than in the practice of medicine. [Many] … feared the woman would be lost in the physician. But… by indefatigable efforts, hospitals were founded, in a few years, in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and scores of young women have had clinical practice in America and received diplomas. But the older and richly-endowed medical colleges have not generously opened their doors to women.” (Quarterly Report of the Pennsylvania Board of Agriculture, 1878: 92-7.)
The origin of the West Philadelphia Hospital for Women was described in a report of its Board of Managers. "In May, 1889, five women met in the parlor of Dr. Comly-Howell [3404 Spring Garden St.] to discuss the possibility of establishing in West Philadelphia a hospital and dispensary for women under the care of women…. Poor people in this locality were often unable to avail themselves of the much appreciated benefits of the Woman's Hospital… on account of the distance and limit of time they could afford from their homes. None of the various hospitals already established offered a place where women could be treated by women, and this desired end was freely discussed at the above meetings. All were in favor of this undertaking, but some were doubtful, afraid to take so great a responsibility without a penny for their treasury. Courage was soon gained, however, and this was largely due to the strong nature of Dr. Comly-Howell, who, in every objection urged or doubt expressed, maintained a serenity and confidence that was in itself an inspiration."
The West Philadelphia Hospital for Women opened in 1889 at the northeast corner of N. 41st and Ogden Streets in a private house converted for treating out-patients and with 10 beds for in-patients. It later expanded through the block to Parrish St. and a training school for nursing began in 1890. Dr. Comly Howell was responsible for deliveries east of 37th St. Dr. Elizabeth L. Peck, another doctor at the Hospital, also lived for a time at 3404 Spring Garden St. Other Powelton residents who were founding members were Mary Sellers Bancroft (3417 Hamilton St.), her daughter, Elizabeth Parrish (3407 Spring Garden), Anna Williams Dreer (101 N. 33rd St.), Emma B. Foulke (3403 Hamilton St.), Helen Marot (317 N. 33rd St.), Sarah M. W. Sellers (3300 Arch St.) and Miss Mila F. Smith (218 N. 32nd St.).
Dr. Comly Howell continued serving women in the neighborhood until the late 1890s when she and her husband moved to Chester County where he was a farmer and she continued her work as a physician.
The Hospital merged with the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1929. It continued to handle maternity cases in the area. In 1964, Women’s Hospital was absorbed by the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The records of the Hospital are now part of the Archives of Drexel University.
(A shorter version of this appeared in the Powelton Post, March, 2012.)