Anna Quincy Churchill could see worlds in a cell
For Anna Quincy Churchill, M1917, nothing was so fascinating as the life of a cell seen through a lens.
“You can see beauty in a microscope. All the time. It’s a minute, mesmerizing beauty,” she told the Boston Herald in 1955. “There is always something new, something more that can be enlarged.”
As a faculty member at Tufts University School of Medicine and Tufts University School of Dental Medicine for more than 36 years, Churchill has dedicated his career to bringing that sense of wonder to his classes. She was known for her love of anatomy and her pioneering career as a woman in academic medicine, but perhaps even more so for her support of her students, both as a mentor and a benefactor.
Her two older brothers both died of diphtheria before she was born, leaving her the only child of Mary and Joseph Churchill of Boston. Her father was a judge by profession, but his passion was botany and he took his daughter with him on his nature outings. She eagerly read her anatomy books. She bought her first microscope while touring Germany in 1907, shortly after graduating with a zoology degree from Smith College. The salesman told him that it was better to learn to cook than to stick his nose in science. She bought it anyway.
Churchill was rarely separated from this microscope. He stayed with her while she earned a master’s degree in biology from Radcliffe College and attended Tufts University School of Medicine.
Although the School of Medicine had admitted women since its founding in 1893, being a woman in medical school back then was as rare as one would expect. Medical schools admitted significant numbers of women in the late 1800s, but by the early 1900s many previously coeducational schools had reverted to the policy of excluding women. Women made up only 2.5% of medical graduates in 1915.
When Churchill graduated from Tufts in 1917, she expected to practice as a doctor. But one of her professors, George A. Bates (who later lent her name to the Bates Andrews student research day at dental school), asked her if she would return to Tufts to teach histology, l study of microscopic tissues.
The late Wilbur Riff, D52, took his histology class during his first semester in dental school. “She was a little woman with a big smile,” Riff recalled in 2008. “She was a very dedicated teacher who really loved her subject and knew it very well.”
In 1925, she became an assistant professor. Besides histology, she taught microscopic anatomy, embryology, and neurology, and “could teach gross anatomy when called upon to do so”. According to Weekly clumpsshe also took the time in 1926 to lecture the women of Jackson College on “The Benefits of Correct Posture and the Means of Obtaining It”.
“She was very active; she was everywhere,” recalls the late Hilde Tillman, D49, who taught general dentistry at Tufts for nearly six decades. “When she was teaching in her lab, she was everywhere.”
She developed a fund from her family’s estate which established two annual awards for outstanding students in zoology and biology, recognizing their “good character and academic work”. But she also provided less formal support.
“She was an unusual woman,” Peter Laband, D50, recalled in a 2012 letter to the Tufts University Dental Alumni Association. “She helped me and several other students with her own revolving student loan fund. No paperwork; of no interest. You paid it back after you graduated, and it would go to other students in need.
The late William “Donald” Stroud, A45, M48, might not have made it through medical school without Churchill. During World War II, he attended Tufts as an undergraduate in the V-12 Navy College program and received permission from his commanding officer to stay in medical school. But being of modest means, he soon found himself without money for school fees. Churchill stepped in to foot the bill and even bought Stroud a microscope.
“He is to leave the Navy and return his microscope next weekend,” she wrote to Tufts president Leonard Carmichael in October 1945, enclosing a check for $200. “Please arrange that the one he’s using now can be his.”
They remained close for the rest of his life. She introduced the young man from a small town in Tennessee to museums and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of his passions.
Knowing about Churchill ‘changed her life – completely made her life’, said Stroud’s husband Steven Law, who attributed her husband’s love of nature, art and music to being an influence on Churchill . It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that after a successful career as a doctor, Stroud embarked on a second career as an art gallery owner.
Even after his death, Churchill was a presence in Stroud and Law’s lives. Often, when the couple had the choice between being pragmatic about spending money, buying a piece of art or going on a trip, Stroud quoted his mentor: “Anna always said if you only had two cents left, with a buy bread and with the other buys flowers for the soul.
Churchill established a teaching fellowship in 1934, and over the years more than 60 seniors have taught alongside him, forming friendships that would last a lifetime.
The vast majority of students she taught during her career were male. Yet when asked about the students she was proud to have taught, she counted a number of women, including Sara Murray Jordan, M1921, founding physician of the Lahey Clinic; Priscilla White, M1923, a pioneering diabetes researcher; and Louise Eisenhardt, M1925, world renowned tumor expert. But her closest connection was to doctor Gertrude Frisbie, M1928, with whom she shared a home until Frisbie’s death in 1959.
Even after his retirement in 1954 at the age of 70, the assistant professor emeritus continued to teach and do research. She said she was grateful for her little space in the anatomy department library, “a nook for my desk and some of my books and papers and microscope.”
A microscope was always nearby. Towards the end of her career, she wrote: “I am still as a little girl, marveling at the complex structure of the human body.
She died in 1971 at the age of 86.
Julie Flaherty can be reached at [email protected]