Last week, on March 8th, we celebrated International Women’s Day. This year’s United Nations theme is Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty. Certainly from an historical perspective, entering into the professions was an enabler of empowerment. It is therefore important to remind us of Queen’s “interesting” history regarding its acceptance of women into the medical profession. At Queen’s, we were the first to admit female medical students, the first to turn women away, and the last school to restart its program of accepting women to our school. Although many sources exist regarding the history of women in medicine in Canada, as it pertains to Queen’s an excellent account comes from Julia Cataudella, in her article “When women came to Queen’s”, published in 1999 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.1
Cataudella reports that Queen’s was the first medical school in Canada to accept women into the study of Medicine, having done so in 1880 by accepting three women into the class. Unfortunately, a few years later there was unrest, seemingly propagated by the medical faculty of the day. They exerted pressure on the Dean for a change of policy, as there were concerns that the curriculum was being “watered down” because of the presence of women in the class. As the story goes, bowing to pressure, the authorities opened up Women’s Medical College in Kingston, an institution that lasted less than a decade.
One of the founders of the school, Jennie Kidd Trout, was the first woman licensed to practice in Canada. Trout was born in 1841 and grew up near Stratford, Ontario.2 She spent seven years of her youth suffering from a “nervous disorder”. In part, prompted by her experience with an illness she had recovered from, she decided to become a doctor. When she made that decision, roughly in the early 1870’s, there was no Canadian school that would admit women. She pursued studies at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and subsequently practiced in Ontario.3 Dr. Trout later established the Federation of Women in Medicine.
Jennie Kidd Trout
The first woman physician to practice in Canada was Emily Howard Stowe. Stowe actually practiced in Canada, before Kidd, although Kidd was the first woman to be licensed to practice. Having tried to enter medical school in Toronto, Stowe was informed, “The doors of the University (Toronto) are not open to women and I trust they never will be.”4 Stowe subsequently went to New York to study before returning to Canada to practice.
It would be a long time before Queen’s accepted women into our medical school again. Too long. We were the last Canadian medical school “of the day” to accept women into the class, having not done so until 1943!1 By then, 90% of North American medical schools were admitting women, Cataudella reports.
Of course, we have long since redressed the unfairness of the past. Presently our medical school class is approximately half women and half men. But our history should serve as a keen reminder, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, of the inequities of the past. If you can share any stories of the triumphs of women in our medical environment, please respond to this blog…or better yet, please stop by the Macklem House, my door is always open.
1. Cataudella J. When women came to Queen’s CMAJ • 7 SEPT. 1999; 161 (5)