by Shannon Wood, Archives Intern
Today we would like to highlight another woman of color physician from early Texas medicine. Parts of her story, like many others, can be found in IC 058 Texas State Board of Medical Examiners records at the McGovern Historical Center.
Petra Bonilla Toral was born January 30, 1866 in the “Sierra in the northern part the state of Puebla, and was brought up” in Tetela de Ocampo, Puebla, México (Salmans 1919, p156). She was probably at least partly of Cacique Indigenous heritage. General Juan Bonilla, who was later governor of the state of Puebla, may have been her father. Her mother was María Vidal Toral, a local woman. Petra attended and graduated from Normal School, then, in 1880, at just fourteen years old, went to México City, where she easily passed the teachers’ examinations and became a licensed school teacher. She then returned to Puebla and taught in the public schools of her hometown. During a social visit with a local figure, General Mendez, Petra met some evangelical missionaries and converted. A while later, “one of these missionaries, Miss Amelia Van Dorsten, came to take charge of [the evangelical] school in Guanajuato, at the beginning of 1895 [and] brought Miss Toral with her, to act as her chief assistant,” (Salmans 1919, p157).
Petra left in September of 1895 for the United States. Between 1896 and 1898 she studied and graduated from the nursing program at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. This medical institution is famous for being run by John Harvey Kellogg, of corn flake fame. While Kellogg held many problematic views, he was a strong proponent of whole foods and exercise as beneficial for underlying health. While studying at the institution, Petra became proficient in dietetics and physiology.
After completing her nursing coursework, Petra moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and enrolled in the Laura Memorial Woman’s Medical College to earn her M.D. She graduated as a doctor in 1902. She was one of only a few women to earn a degree from this college, as it was absorbed by another medical school the following year.
Petra returned to Guanajuato following her graduation from medical school, and served as an intern in the Good Samaritan Hospital, or “Casa de Salud El Buen Samaritano,” as agreed upon with Dr. Salmans. She also assisted other doctors in the local medical mission, gaining experience with a Dr. Cartwright in Léon and a Dr. Hyde in Silao. She returned for a final year at the “Good Samaritan,” during which time she was also a teacher at the nursing school hosted by the hospital.
In 1919, Petra and Apollonio moved to Texas officially, coming through El Paso and moving to Dallas. On her immigration form, Petra listed her occupation as “teacher and missionary.” It seems that Petra had some difficulty in obtaining a medical license to practice in Texas. One of the letters supporting her 1924 application for a medical license notes that she had “professional difficulties.” Fortunately, some friends in the medical profession were able to help her appeal to the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners. Her file in the the MHC’s IC 058 also includes these recommendation letters. One colleague, a Dr. Rosser of Dallas, stated that “It would seem with her education and the record of her past ethical conduct during many years of active practice would entitle her to much consideration.” However, it took at least a year of collecting letters of recommendation from several colleagues and medical professionals for Petra to be finally be successful in her application.
We may never know exactly why Dr. Petra Toral had difficulty in obtaining her medical license, despite being a well-trained and experienced medical professional. It is possible, however, that it had something to do with her race. In the early 1900s, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Texas often faced extreme racism. For example, in 1918 a mob killed at least 15 men in a massacre in Porvenir, Texas, and returned to burn the town a few days later. It is supposed that between 1910 and 1920, at least 5,000 people of Hispanic heritage were “killed or vanished” in the United States (Contreras & Attanasio 2019). We know from the letters in Petra Toral’s Texas State Board of Medical Examiners file that at least one of her recommenders thought she was “particularly fitted to do a good work among her own country women in this state.” Perhaps they observed a special affinity or skill of hers. But it’s also quite possible they viewed her place or abilities as limited only to serving other Hispanic women (MHC, IC 058).
From what records are available, it appears Petra did become a successful physician in Dallas, Texas during the 1920s and 1930s. Her husband had passed away in 1934, and she applied for naturalization as a US citizen in 1939. Now 78 years old, she had an adopted 13-year-old daughter named Petronia. At the time of her official naturalization as a U.S. citizen in 1942, she had moved to Chicago, Illinois. She passed away, probably in Chicago, at an unknown date from unknown causes. From the records at the MHC, we know the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners cancelled her medical license in July of 1961, presuming her deceased.
IC 058 Texas Board of Medical Examiners Records, Colunga, Petra Bonilla T., box 21, folder 49, McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library
Contreras, R. & Attanasio, C. (2019, July 26). Mexican Americans faced Racial Terror from 1910-1920. AP NEWS. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://apnews.com/article/texas-us-news-ap-top-news-az-state-wire-ca-state-wire-b8516a3d80ef40da97afd3a9e4f7d706
National Archives at Chicago; Chicago, Illinois; ARC Title: Petitions for Naturalization, 1906-1991; Record Group Title: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685-2009; Record Group Number: RG 21
National Archives and Records Administration; Washington D.C.; Manifests of Statistical Alien Arrivals at El Paso, Texas, May 1909 – October 1924; NAI: 2843448; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004.; Record Group Number: 85; Microfilm Roll Number: 38
Salmans, L. Brimner. (1919). Medico-Evangelism in Guanajuato. Guanajuato, Mexico. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007682899/Home
Year: 1900; Census Place: Cincinnati Ward 16, Hamilton, Ohio; Page: 13; Enumeration District: 0132; FHL microfilm: 1241277