Skip to main content

Hyla S. Watters papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00239

Scope and Contents

The Hyla Watters Papers consist of l.5 linear feet of correspondence, writings, memorabilia, printed material, photographs, and an oral history. The inclusive dates are 1892 to 1991, but the major portion of material dates from 1911 to 1961, which includes her Smith College and missionary years.

The CORRESPONDENCE series consists of three sections: Outgoing, Incoming, and Miscellaneous, and contains a combination of original letters and carbon copies. Watters was an excellent correspondent and wrote detailed letters describing her life and work. The first section, Outgoing, contains primarily her correspondence to her family from Smith College and her various post-graduate and missionary locations. The Smith letters contain lively accounts of college life, 1911-1915. There is a folder of letters, 1917-1924, written from several different places, mostly reporting on medical school and internships. The majority of letters in this section are those she wrote from China, 1924-1948, where she was stationed at Wuhu General Hospital in Anhwei Province as a staff surgeon. Her mother, Ada, spent several years with her in China, and there are also some letters in this group from her to the family at home and some from both of them. These letters describe in detail medical experiences, the political situation, Chinese culture, and daily life, including the Lindberghs' stop in the fall of 1931, the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, and the Communist takeover in the 1940s. There is also one letter from Watters while she was interned in Shanghai by the Japanese in August 1942. Following her service in China she was stationed in Liberia, and there is one folder of letters from Ganta, 1950-1956. The outgoing letters to friends are in two groups. The first were written to Helen Hale Plummer and Lyman and Sadie Hale, 1938-1986. The second group, 1917-1960, contains miscellaneous letters to friends, including general printed Christmas letters, personal letters, and descriptive acknowledgements of supplies donated.

The second section, Incoming, 1930-31, 1980-1985, contains letters from other missionaries describing their experiences and general personal letters as well as some from Chinese friends and associates in Wuhu when Watters was posted elsewhere.

The final section of Miscellaneous correspondence, 1930-1988, consists of letters neither to or from Hyla Watters. It contains general printed letters written by missionaries, correspondence between family members and between friends and family giving accounts of Watters' activities, plus several miscellaneous letters to Watters' biographer, Elsie Landstrom.

The BIOGRAPHICAL MATERIAL includes diaries, an autobiography, oral history excerpts, articles, clippings, and genealogical material. There are two diaries, one with short entries from her Smith College years, 1911-1915, and a travel diary from her trip across Africa and the Holy Land in 1961. "Growing Up Days" is a short autobiographical piece written for her 1975 Smith College reunion and covers her life up until her graduation. The oral history transcript consists of excerpts from an interview by Elsie Landstrom in 1986. Also included are genealogical charts, correspondence, printed material and notes. There is one photograph, taken in 1950 when she received an honorary degree from Smith College.

The WRITINGS consist of stories about China that Watters wrote in the 1930s to raise money for Wuhu Hospital, plus poetry, sermons, hymns, and miscellaneous articles, 1967-1978.

The MEMORABILIA consists mainly of mementos and printed material from Smith College, China, and Liberia. In addition there is one folder of miscellaneous family items. The China material contains some printed reports to the missionary conference from Wuhu Hospital.

Dates of Materials

  • 1892-1991
  • Majority of material found within 1911-1961


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 Hyla Watters. 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

Hyla Stowell Watters, also known as Hyla Doc, was born on October 13, 1893 Dobbs Ferry, New York to Dr. Philip M. Watters and Ada S. Watters. Her father served as a Methodist clergyman to several churches in New York while Hyla was growing up and attending school, and later as President of the Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia starting in 1914.

Her mother was a schoolteacher but gave up her professional life upon marrying her father. She stayed at home with their three children: Philip S. Watters (later to become Reverend Watters, pastor of Memorial Methodist Church in White Plains, New York), Florence 'Sally' Watters (later to become a missionary in India), and lastly Hyla S. Watters. Hyla Doc always said her mother was her greatest inspiration.

Her childhood was spent very happily. Her family often vacationed by camping in Lake Champlain, New York. Her parents were extremely nurturing and encouraging. When she was 8 she read a story called "Who will open the door for little Ling Ti?" and knew that she wanted to go to China. She and her friends started the Girls Foreign Missions (G.F.M.) to imitate the W.F.M.S. that her mother belonged to (Women's Foreign Missionary Society). Her Father announced the meetings in Church along with those of the WFMS's.

Upon graduating from Yonkers High School in 1911, Hyla Doc attended Smith College as the class of 1915. With a degree in philosophy, she taught for a year at Atlanta University before deciding to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor and going to China. She received her MD from Cornell Medical College in 1921, interned at Bellevue Hospital in New York and Morristown Hospital in New Jersey, and lastly was awarded the Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene by the London School of Tropical Medicine in 1924.

In 1924 she sailed for China and after completing a year of language classes at the Nanking University, settled in her position at Wuhu General Hospital in Anhwei Province on the banks of the Yangtsze River. The Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed this position to her. She devoted the next 24 years of her life to the hospital, mostly acting as head surgeon.

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hyla Doc was interned by the Japanese and taken to Shanghai in 1942 where she continued to practice medicine as much as she was permitted. One of her patients there was Lt. Egar D. Whitcomb. They developed a close friendship and Hyla Doc was a guest of honor at Whitcomb's inauguration as the governor of Indiana many years later. At the end of the war in 1945, she returned to her post in Wuhu, remaining there until 1948 when the Red Regime closed the hospital.

In 1950, Hyla Doc was en route to Ganta, Liberia where she worked for eleven years for the Ganta Mission as a surgeon. She shared a bungalow with Mildred Black, and worked extensively with the local community, learning their language and customs. On of her students there was Wilfred Boayue who went on to become a leading medical physician in Liberia and to work for the World Health Organization. She wrote extensively on her experience "in the bush" and used these memoirs to raise money for her causes.

Hyla Doc returned to Tupper Lake, New York in 1961 where she continued to work as a physician into her eighties. In 1980, at the urging of colleagues who warned her against malpractice suits, she retired at age 87. Until the last year of her life, she lectured to American audiences about her experiences in both China and Liberia.

Hyla Doc won several awards for her dedicated service to humanity. Smith College gave her the honorary degree, Doctor of Science, in 1950. In 1953, she was ordained at the 120th Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the Republic of Liberia. She was named "Woman of the Year" by the Women's Medical Society of New York in 1967, the Business and Professional Women of Tupper Lake in 1969, and lastly by the New York State Medical Association in 1971. She died on August 3rd, 1987 in Tupper Lake at the age of 93.

born October 13, Dobbs Ferry, New York
graduated from Yonkers High School
taught at Atlanta University
graduated from Smith College, major in philosophy
interned at Bellevue Hospital, New York, and Memorial Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey
graduated from Cornell University Medical School
completed her studies at the School of Tropical Medicine in London
sailed for China and completed a year at Nanking University
served at Wuhu General Hospital, Anhwei Province, China, most of that time as head surgeon with temporary assignments to East Gate Hospital in Seoul, Korea
was interned by the Japanese for 7 months
returned to her mission post in China
served in a missionary hospital in Ganta, Liberia
served at Sunmount State School, Tupper Lake, New York
served at Mercy General Hospital, Tupper Lake, New York
cited by the New York State Medical Association for 50 years of service as a physician
died August 3, Saranac Lake, New York


1.104 linear feet (3 containers)


Medical missionary and physician. The papers document her life as a student at Smith College and her work as a medical missionary in China and Liberia. China material describes medical work; Chinese culture and daily life; the Lindberghs' visit in 1931; the Japanese invasion; the Communist invasion; and a trip to the Holy Land. Material includes correspondence; diaries; medical school records and internships; writings; oral history notes; and memorabilia document her college years and missionary work.


This collection is organized into four series:

  1. I. Correspondence
  2. II. Biographical Material
  3. III. Writings
  4. IV. Memorabilia

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Dr. Watters made an initial donation to the College Archives in 1942 and added numerous items through the years. The remainder of the material, mostly her letters from overseas, was given by her niece Elizabeth Stuntz Allen in July 1990. The earlier donations were combined with the later accession and the entire group placed in the Sophia Smith Collection.

Related Material

See also: Memoirs published as "Hyla Doc: Surgeon in China Through War and Revolution, 1924-1949," edited by Elsie L. Landstrom.

Processing Information

Processed by Susan Boone, 1991.

Hyla S. Watters papers
Finding Aid
Susan Boone
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: mnsss73 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