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Mabel Milham Roys and Elizabeth Roys papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00222

Scope and Contents

The Mabel Roys Papers consist of correspondence, biographical material, writings, speeches, memorabilia, and photographs. They cover the years 1880-1956, but the bulk of the material is from the Royses' China years, 1904-1920.

Over half of the Mabel Roys Papers consists of letters written by Mabel to her parents in St. Paul from Smith College and China. The primary recipient of the letters was her mother, Sarah Ellis Milham. She also addresses her father, Edward Milham, and often refers to her siblings Edith, Win, Bert, and Roy. Most of the letters are very personal, full of details of social and domestic life. The China letters also include accounts of the Royses' work and descriptions of Chinese culture and politics from a sympathetic, but decidedly Western viewpoint. There are several folders of "syndicate," or circular letters and reports that focus more directly on Dr. Roys's medical work, and missionary work in general. Some syndicate letters are mixed with the family letters. Although the letters contain accounts of floods, famine, plague, and poverty, the Royses viewed their own situation as safe and comfortable compared to dangers faced by missionaries in other regions of China. Their letters describe dinner parties, an efficient group of Chinese servants, and the comfortable furnishings of their homes, tending to support Mabel's statement that "We in Weihsien know nothing of the real sacrifices of missionary life..." At the same time, the letters convey a sense of the strains as well as satisfactions inherent in long hours of work. Homesickness, the result of years in the field away from family and friends, is a constant theme of the letters. Letters from the Royses to friend and colleague Caroline Austin and to their benefactor Frances (Mrs. J.P.) Morgan, cousin to Charles's grandmother, round out the correspondence from the China period.

The letters home contained numerous enclosures, and with the exception of most photographs, which have been filed separately, they have been kept with the letters. From 1913 on, Mabel enclosed letters from the children, especially Elizabeth. Some of Elizabeth's early letters are therefore separated from those she wrote as an adult in the 1930's. There are also a few enclosed letters written by the Royses' friends and associates, some of whom had met Mabel's parents while they spent a year in China, 1907-08.

A small amount of other correspondence includes letters home from Mabel Roys's 1926-27 tour; letters to Mabel Roys from her daughters; and a few miscellaneous letters to and from the Roys and Milham families. There are seven letters written by Charles Roys from college to a friend, to Mabel's father regarding Charles and Mabel's engagement, to Elizabeth, and to Mabel a few days before his death.

The bulk of the writings and memorabilia also pertains to the Royses' China years, although there are some items related to Mabel Roys' positions at Wells College, biographical material summarizing her later activities, articles and speeches from her post-China career, and a group of condolence letters received by Elizabeth Roys Williams upon the death of her mother.

A collection of photographs and negatives mirrors the content of the letters written from China. Over half are snapshots of various family members in both the U.S. and China. There is a small group of photos from Mabel's years at Smith College. China scenes and groups make up the balance of the photos, including an album with detailed captions prepared by Mabel Roys. The Elizabeth Roys papers are a collection of scrapbooks, photographs, letters and articles from Elizabeth Roys' time documenting gardens in East and Southeast Asia, compiled into five volumes.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1880 - 2013


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sophia Smith Collection owns copyright to the papers of Mabel Roys. Copyright to materials created by others may be owned by those individuals or their heirs or assigns. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights. Permission must be obtained from the Sophia Smith Collection to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use."

Biographical / Historical

Mabel Milham was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1878 and received her early schooling there. She began her studies at Smith College in 1896, and though she was apparently less well-to-do than most of her classmates, she managed to have an active social life. Her interest in missionary work led her to join the Smith College Association for Christian Work. She was active in its Missionary Society, attending student conferences and becoming president of the society during her senior year.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Mabel Milham held jobs as a student secretary for the National Board of the YWCA and traveling secretary for the Student Volunteer Movement, speaking on college campuses throughout the eastern half of the United States. In 1902 she became state secretary of the Minnesota YWCA. She met Dr. Charles K. Roys (Princeton '97) while both were traveling for the Student Volunteer Movement, and they married in June 1904.

Several months later, the Royses sailed for China, having been appointed as missionaries to Weihsien, Shantung Province, by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The station had recently been rebuilt after its total destruction in the Boxer Rebellion, but as chief surgeon at the teaching hospital, Dr. Roys found less than adequate facilities. In 1916, the Royses were transferred to Tsinan, where Dr. Roys joined the faculty of Cheloo Medical College as professor of anatomy. The Royses returned to China in 1919, having just completed their second U.S. furlough, only to discover that symptoms Dr. Roys had been experiencing were the result of a brain tumor. The family returned to the U.S. in early 1920 so he could receive treatment in Boston and at the Mayo Clinic. He died in September 1920.

In the early years both Royses spent much of their time learning the Chinese language, and later Mabel Roys worked in cooperation with a Chinese committee for the introduction of a phonetic script. She also taught Bible classes, wrote reports and articles for colleagues and newspapers at home, and, in general, helped with the charitable, medical, and religious work of the missions. While living in China, Mabel Roys gave birth to three daughters: Elizabeth, 1905; Carolyn, 1908; and Mary, 1910. Carolyn died of measles complications a few weeks before Mary's birth in 1910.

Soon after her husband's death, Mabel Roys was appointed General Secretary of the Women's Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. In 1923, the men's and women's boards merged and she became foreign secretary, the first woman to carry administrative responsibility for the foreign field. She was in charge of educational, evangelistic, and medical work in China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. During 1926-27, she toured the missions under her charge.

In 1928 Mabel Roys became Dean of Wells College, continuing in that position until 1935. She remained an active member of the Board of Foreign Missions until her resignation in 1951. Among her other duties, she served as Associate Director of the Church Community for China Relief during World War II. In this position she initiated fund-raising projects that supported war relief efforts. Roys also worked in various capacities for the International Missionary Council and several committees of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. She received an honorary LL.D. from the Western College for Women in 1928.

Mabel Roys spent her last years with her daughter, Elizabeth Roys Williams, in Madison, Wisconsin, where she died in 1956.

Elizabeth Kirkland Roys was born in Weihsien China in 1905, to two Presbyterian missionary parents, Dr. Charles K. Roys and Mabel Milham Roys. She was the eldest of her two other siblings Carolyn (who died early on) and Mary. In 1916 the family moved to Tsinan, where her father worked in a hospital. They moved to the United States after it was found out that Charles’ had a brain tumor. He died when she was 15. During her time at Smith (class of 1928), she went back to China with her mother. While her mother was doing missionary work, Elizabeth explored the gardens of Japan, Korea, China and Siam (now known as Thailand). She most likely did this as a study abroad program, as her work was planned out by the Botany Department of Smith, allowing her to continue working on her degree. After graduation, she later worked as a research assistant at Yale cataloging trees in Asia after previously being denied entry to Yale after undergrad for being a woman. In 1932, she married Nash Williams, and they moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Elizabeth died in 1991, but her notebooks weren’t found till after her husband died in 2002.

Source: Smith College, Elizabeth K. Roys, et al “Asian Gardens of the 1920s: The Travels of Elizabeth K. Roys.” Accessed November 3, 2023


4.501 linear feet (10 containers)


YWCA worker and missionary. Collection documents Chinese culture, social conditions, and politics; and the family's social and domestic life. Other subjects include student life at Smith College, early work as YWCA traveling secretary, work at Wells College, and other post-China activities. Materials include correspondence, writings, memorabilia, and photographs.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Elizabeth Roys Williams donated these papers in 1988. They had been sent to her having been found in the attic of the Milhams' St. Paul home before it was demolished.

Additional material was donated by Linda Hudson Scanlan in 2007.

Elizabeth Roys scrapbooks donated to the Botanic Gardens by William C. Whitford from Madison, Wisconsin who was a longtime friend of Elizabeth and personal representative of the estate. They were later transfered by the Smith Botanic Gardens in 2018.

Processing Information

Processed by Amy Hague, 1989.

Elizabeth Roys scrapbooks were accessioned by Bailey Herbert in 2023.

Also in 2023, the collection was renamed from Mabel Milham Roys to Mabel Milham Roys and Elizabeth Roys papers.

Mabel Milham Roys and Elizabeth Roys papers
Finding Aid
Amy Hague
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss61 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:23-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063