Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in1825, Laura was raised in Philadelphia, where she moved in socially progressive circles. She was educated as both a homeopathic physician and a schoolteacher. She was also a dedicated abolitionist.
While the Civil War still was raging all about her, Laura travelled to St. Helena Island in Port Royal, South Carolina, where she founded the first school for freed slaves. She named her institution the Penn School. Laura was practical, independent, down-to-earth and strong-willed. She readily entered into the life of Saint Helena Island, where she began her work attending to the medical needs of the freed slaves. In June, 1862, Laura gave up her medical practice, and together with Ellen Murray, her life-long friend and fellow teacher, opened the first school for freed slaves. Nine adults students enrolled in the school, which operated out of the back room of an abandoned plantation house. Unlike most schools established for emancipated slaves, Laura’s school offered a rigorous curriculum, which was modeled on the schools of New England.