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Doctora Petra Bonilla Toral de Colunga

Dr. Petra Bonilla Toral de Colunga

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).

"Dra. Petral Bonilla Toral de Colunga," date unknown but probably prior to 1902. [Salmans 1919, p146]
“Dra. Petral Bonilla Toral de Colunga,” date unknown. [Salmans 1919, p146]
Much of what we know about Petra’s time in Mexico comes from the book Medico-Evangelism in Guanajuato, written by Dr. Levi B. Salmans in 1919. According to Dr. Salmans, who was head of both the evangelical mission program and Good Samaritan Hospital in Guanajuato, Petra “observed the power of the medical work in connection with evangelism, and, we acting in accordance with the opinions and the recommendations of three of our lady missionaries… sent Miss Toral to the United States to study medicine” (Salmans 1919, p158).
The Good Samaritan Sanitarium in 1899 where Petra Toral worked before and after her medical school training. [Salmans 1919, p124]
The Good Samaritan Sanitarium in 1899 where Petra Toral worked before and after her medical school training. [Salmans 1919, p124]
The McGovern Historical Center’s IC 058 Texas State Board of Medical Examiners records holds her 1924 licensure application, which offers an account in Petra’s own words: “I left Mexico for the United States in order to get a thorough medical education to go back to my country as a self-supporting missionary physician.”

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.

mbryology Lab at Battle Creek Sanitarium, circa 1897. Petra Toral probably did coursework in this lab between 1896-1898 as part of her studies under John Harvey Kellogg. [University of Michigan Library, Deep Blue Documents, accessed 16 February 2022 from https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/106015 ]
Embryology Lab at Battle Creek Sanitarium, circa 1897. Petra Toral may have done coursework in this lab between 1896-1898 as part of her studies under John Harvey Kellogg. [University of Michigan Library, Deep Blue Documents, accessed 16 February 2022 from https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/106015 ]

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.

Doctor Toral, probably around 1902. [Salmans 1919, p151]
Doctor Toral, probably around 1902. [Salmans 1919, p151]
During her seven years studying medicine in the United States, Petra was supported primarily by funds from Dr. Salmans back in Guanajuato, as well as community donations and proceeds from a newsletter and songbooks Dr. Salman’s mission sold. Dr. Salmans and Petra Toral had a written agreement that in return for his paying for Petra’s studies in the United States, she would return to “come and work in the ‘Good Samaritan’ for five years, receiving a salary not larger than that paid to other Mexican Workers in the mission, and that in case she should fail, because of getting married or for any other reason, work this number of years, she should return a part of the money expended upon her proportionate with the number of years she had failed to work” (Salmans 1919, p228). However, there were no witnesses and the document was not notarized.

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.

Staff of the Good Samaritan Sanitarium in Guanajuato, Mexico, 1905. [Salmans 1919, p152]
Staff of the Good Samaritan Sanitarium in Guanajuato, Mexico, 1905. [Salmans 1919, p152]
In 1905, Petra fell in love with Apollonio de Colunga, a traveling salesman of Seventh-Day Adventist religious books. They were married and moved to the northern Mexican border with Texas.

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.

Letter of recommendation for Petra Toral from John Harvey Kellogg, 1924. [IC 058 Texas State Board of Medical Examiners records, box 21, folder 49, McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library]
Letter of recommendation for Petra Toral from John Harvey Kellogg, 1924. [IC 058 Texas State Board of Medical Examiners records, box 21, folder 49, McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library]

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).

Dr. Petra Bonilla Toral de Colunga, probably age 57, in Dallas, TX. [IC 058 Texas State Board of Medical Examiners records, box 21, folder 49, McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library]
Dr. Petra Bonilla Toral de Colunga, probably age 57, in Dallas, TX. [IC 058 Texas State Board of Medical Examiners records, box 21, folder 49, McGovern Historical Center, Texas Medical Center Library]

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.

Petra Bonilla Toral de Colunga, age 78 in 1939. [National Archives of Chicago]
Petra Bonilla Toral de Colunga, age 78 in 1939. [National Archives of Chicago]

Sources

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

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