She Could See Worlds in a Cell, and Boundless Promise in Her Students

One of the few female MDs of her time, Anna Quincy Churchill, Class of 1917, was devoted to her medical and dental students
A black and white, head-and-shoulders photo of a young woman taken in 1917.

To Anna Quincy Churchill, M1917, nothing was so intriguing as the life of a cell as seen through a lens.

“You can see beauty in a microscope. All the time. It’s a minute, fascinating beauty,” she told the Boston Herald in 1955. “There’s always something new, something more that can be magnified.”

As a faculty member at Tufts University School of Medicine and Tufts University School of Dental Medicine for more than 36 years, Churchill devoted her career to bringing that sense of wonder to her classes. She was known for her love of anatomy and her trailblazing career as a woman in academic medicine, but perhaps even more for the support she gave her students, both as a mentor and a benefactor.

Her two older brothers both died of diphtheria before she was born, leaving her as the only child to Mary and Joseph Churchill of Boston. Her father was a judge by profession, but his passion was botany, and he would bring his daughter with him on his nature outings. She read his anatomy books hungrily. She bought her first microscope while touring Germany in 1907, shortly after graduating Smith College with a degree in zoology. The salesman told her she would be better off learning to cook than poking her nose into science. She bought it anyway.

Churchill was rarely parted from that microscope. It stayed with her while she went on to earn a master’s degree in biology from Radcliffe College and attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

Although the School of Medicine has admitted women since its founding in 1893, being a woman in medical school at the time was as rare as you would expect. Medical schools admitted a significant number of women in the late 1800s, but by the early 1900s, many previously coeducational schools had returned 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 physician. But one of her professors, George A. Bates (who later lent his name to Bates Andrews Student Research Day at the dental school), asked if she would return to Tufts to teach histology, the study of microscopic tissues.

The late Wilbur Riff, D52, took her histology class in his first semester at the dental school. “She was a tiny woman with a big smile,” Riff recalled in 2008. “She was a very dedicated teacher who really loved her subject and was very knowledgeable about it.”

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 the Tufts Weekly, she also took time in 1926 to give a lecture to the women of Jackson College on “the advantages of correct posture and the ways of obtaining it.”

“She was very active; she was everywhere,” recalled the late Hilde Tillman, D49, who taught general dentistry at Tufts for nearly six decades. “When she was teaching in her lab, she was all around.”

She developed a fund from her family’s estate that established two annual prizes for outstanding students of zoology and biology, recognizing their “good personality and scholarly work.” But she also provided less formal support.

“She was an unusual lady,” Peter Laband, D50, recalled in a 2012 letter to the Tufts University Dental Alumni Association. “She had helped me and quite a few other students with her own revolving student loan fund. No paperwork; no interest. You paid it back after you graduated, and it would go to other needy students.”

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 as part of the V-12 Navy College Program and received permission from his commanding officer to stay on for medical school. But being from modest means, he soon found himself without the money for tuition. Churchill stepped in to pay the bill, and even purchased a microscope for Stroud.

“He must leave the Navy and surrender his microscope this coming weekend,” she wrote to Tufts president Leonard Carmichael in October 1945, enclosing a $200 check. “Please arrange it so that the one he is now using can be his.”

They stayed close for the rest of her life. She introduced the young man from a small town in Tennessee to museums and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of her passions.

Knowing Churchill “changed his life—completely made his life,” said Stroud’s husband, Steven Law, who attributed his husband’s love of nature, art, and music to Churchill’s influence. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that after a successful career as a physician, Stroud started a second career as an art gallery owner.

Even after her death, Churchill was a presence in Stroud and Law’s life. Often, when the couple had a choice between being pragmatic about spending money or buying a piece of art or taking a trip, Stroud would quote his mentor: “Anna would always say if you have but two pennies left, with one buy bread and with the other buy flowers for the soul.”

Churchill created a teaching fellowship in 1934, and over the years, more than 60 seniors taught at her side, forming friendships that would last throughout her life.

The vast majority of students she taught in her career were men. Still, when asked about the students she was proud to have taught, she counted a number of women, including Sara Murray Jordan, M1921, a founding physician of the Lahey Clinic; Priscilla White, M1923, a pioneering diabetes researcher; and Louise Eisenhardt, M1925, a world-renowned tumor expert. But her closest bond was with physician Gertrude Frisbie, M1928, with whom she shared a home until Frisbie’s death in 1959.

Even after retirement in 1954 at the age of 70, the assistant professor emerita continued to teach and do research. She said she was grateful for her little space in the department of anatomy library, “a corner for my desk and some of my books and papers and microscope.”

A microscope was always nearby. Toward the end of her career, she wrote, “I am still as I was as a little girl, lost in wonder over the intricate structure of the human body.”

She died in 1971 at the age of 86.