Dr. Alice Robie in Charge
by Caroline Littlewood, WFPL Local History Librarian
To the people of Watertown, she was many things: a physician, a public health advocate, a citizen activist, and a tireless campaigner. She lived and worked here for twenty years, but she’s not in any Watertown history books. So, who was Dr. Alice Robie?
Dr. Alice H. Robie’s passport photo, circa 1920. (FamilySearch.org.)
Before she was Dr. Robie, she was Miss Purvis.
Alice Hatheway Purvis was born in Washington, D.C. in 1872. The granddaughter of prominent abolitionists Robert Purvis and Harriet Forten Purvis, she inherited a strong tradition of social activism and civic engagement. Her father, Dr. Charles Burleigh Purvis, helped found Howard University Medical School and served as Surgeon-in-Chief of Washington, D.C.’s Freedmen’s Hospital for many years. Alice followed his footsteps into the medical profession and, after graduating from Wellesley in 1896, earned her M.D. at Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Alice H. Purvis graduation photo, taken from Class of 1898, Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. (Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania Photograph Collection, Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine.)
Alice (top right and bottom left) with other medical students, 1896. (Laura Heath Hills Scrapbook, Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania Photograph Collection, Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine.)
Alice was close to her aunt, suffragist Harriet “Hattie” Purvis, Jr. In 1899, they sailed across the Atlantic with Susan B. Anthony to attend the International Council of Women in London. When Alice returned to Greater Boston for an internship at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, she moved in with her aunt in Watertown. And when Hattie Purvis died in 1904, she named Alice executor of her will.
Just weeks after her aunt’s death, Alice married Mr. Frederic H. Robie in a small, private ceremony. The couple lived at 102 Mount Auburn Street, where Alice maintained a medical practice. Once married, she continued her involvement in local clubs and causes like the Watertown Woman’s Club, the Lend-a-hand Club of First Parish Unitarian, and the Watertown Equal Suffrage League. Dr. Robie often hosted meetings, lectures, and social teas for these and other organizations from her parlor. On occasion, she also took her cause to town hall. When Watertown was besieged by brown-tail and gypsy moths, Dr. Robie petitioned town Selectmen to act and co-founded the Watertown Society for Suppressing Insect Pests to rally Watertown residents against the scourge.
Dr. Robie lived at 102 Mt. Auburn Street (on the right, circa 1910).
(Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection).
Dr. Robie was an active member of the Boston Metropolitan Chapter of the Red Cross. When World War One broke out, she chaired the Watertown branch of the Surgical Dressing Department, which purchased gauze and organized local women to make surgical dressings. She fundraised and, as the Watertown Red Cross’s local “press agent,” appealed directly to the women of Watertown in the local paper to “heed the cry and help” the cause. When the war came to an end, Dr. Robie continued to campaign and speak publicly on health issues. She served on the Health Education Committee of Massachusetts, which sought to pass state legislation in support of health education in public schools. She also traveled around the state, lecturing on the importance of pediatric hygiene and safety practices in the fight against disease. In 1920, the Watertown branch of the Red Cross, the Watertown District Nursing Association, and Town authorities opened a community health center at 14 Patten Street. Naturally, Dr. Robie was put “in charge.”
Dr. Robie’s husband died in 1919. After his death, her health declined. She sold the family home at 19 Garfield Street in 1920 and moved to Cambridge with her two sons. Then, after a few years’ service as Watertown Woman’s Club President, she left New England entirely. Dr. Alice Robie died in California in 1934.
Excerpt from Dr. Robie’s 1921-1922 President’s Report.
(Watertown Woman’s Club records, Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection.)
How many other figures of our city's past are hidden, with stories that need to be told? Work with us to make sure stories like Dr. Robie's are remembered for future generations—by sharing some of your family photos with WFPL!
The Watertown Collective Memory Project is embarking on a mission to collect stories and images from Watertown’s recent history, from 1950 to the present day, and preserve them in our permanent collection. The story of Watertown lives in its people, and that means you—your family, your memories, and your experiences. Visit watertownlib.org/memory to learn about our upcoming digitization days and submit photos online.
“A society was formed to suppress insect pests,” Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, December 23, 1904.
Alice Robie, “The Red Cross needs you,” Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, February 8, 1918.
Alice Robie, “Surgery in front line trench,” Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, April 5, 1918.
“Dr. Alice Robie is Chairman,” Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, December 19, 1919.
“Reception opens community home,” Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, June 4, 1920.
“Robie-Purvis,” Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, May 6, 1904.
W. Montague Cobb, “Charles Burleigh Purvis,” Journal of the National Medical Association 45, no. 1 (1953) 79-82. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2617156/pdf/jnma00611-0083.pdf.
President’s report for 1921-1922, Watertown Woman’s Club records, Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection, Watertown, Mass.
Scrapbook of Laura Heath Hills, Laura Heath Hills, M.D. papers, Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania Photograph Collection. Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Penn.