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Towne, Laura Matilda

Laura Towne (1825-1901)  – Physician, Teacher and Co-Founder of the Penn School

By Catherine A. Paul

Laura Matilda Towne
Laura Matilda Towne
Photo: Courtesy of the Beaufort County Library

Laura Matilda Towne was born May 3, 1825 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and died February 22, 1901 on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. Towne was an American educator and abolitionist, establishing one of the most successful and earliest freedmen’s schools for former slaves after the Civil War (“Laura Matilda Towne: American educator,” n.d.).

Laura Towne's School, St. Helena Island, South Carolina
Laura Towne’s School, St. Helena Island, South Carolina
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID stereo.1s03953

Towne’s educational experiences in Boston and Philadelphia culminated in an interest in homeopathic medicine and the abolition of slavery by her 20s. She studied privately under Dr. Constantine Hering, founder of many homeopathic clinics around Philadelphia. Towne also enrolled at the Penn Medical University, however there is no record of her degree (“Laura Matilda Towne: American educator,” n.d.). 

Towne’s abolition advocacy began thanks to William Henry Furness, the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where Towne’s family belonged. Furness was a prominent abolitionist in Philadelphia at the time. This led her to serving in several “charity schools,” teaching from the late 1850s until the start of the Civil War in 1861. When Union troops captured and occupied the Sea Islands in November 1861, Towne volunteered to sail to the Sea Islands to help former slaves with her skills in medicine and teaching. With the support of the Port Royal Relief Committee, Towne left for Port Royal April 1862, at the age of 36 (“Laura Matilda Towne: American educator,” n.d.).

Towne’s early duties on the Sea Islands were being both housekeeper and secretary to Edward L. Pierce, a young abolitionist from Boston. However, she soon began practicing medicine, teaching, and distributing clothes. In 1862, Towne’s friend Ellen Murray joined her on St. Helena, and they founded the Penn School, one of the first schools for former slaves. The Penn School’s curriculum was rigorous and followed the traditions of New England schools. By 1867, Towne was exclusively teaching. She felt inspired by the spirit of the freed slaves. Towne was a dedicated Republican and North sympathizer, and she rarely interacted with Southern white Americans on the mainland (“Laura Matilda Towne: American educator,” n.d.).

Group at Laura Towne's Residence (Towne is second from the right)
Group at Laura Towne’s Residence (Towne is second from the right)
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID stereo 1s03952

Following the Civil War, the Penn School was the only secondary education institution available to African Americans on the Sea Islands. (“Towne, Laura Matilda (1825-1901),” 2002). Towne fought hard to maintain her school, even using her own money to pay the teachers’ salaries. (Holland, 1912). By 1870, the Penn School evolved to include teacher-trainings. At this time, Towne also began working as a local public health official, legal adviser, and temperance leader. She joined the Band of Hope, an organization of approximately 1,500 people who sought to eliminate liquor. She also helped the Sea Islanders become owners of the plantations on which they were slaves for their entire lives (“Towne, Laura Matilda (1825-1901),” 2002). Towne played a major role in making sure the Sea Islands were far more prosperous by the time she died than they were when she arrived (Holland, 1912).

In 1867, Towne purchased an abandoned plantation on St. Helena called Frogmore, where she and Murray lived until Towne’s death. After she died, the school was renamed the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School and began to embrace vocational training, which Towne always resisted. In 1948, the school became a part of the South Carolina public school system (“Laura Matilda Towne: American educator,” n.d.).


Holland. R. S. (1912). Letters and diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina (1862-1884). New York, NY: Negro Universities Press.

“Laura Matilda Towne: American educator” (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from

“Towne, Laura Matilda (1825-1901).” (2002). In Women in world history: A biographical encyclopedia. Retrieved from

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2017). Laura Towne (1825-1901) – Physician, teacher and co-founder of the Penn School. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from