Women's College Hospital Foundation - From the archives: Celebrating a pioneer of women in medicine

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From the archives: Celebrating a pioneer of women in medicine

At age 26, Jane Sproule made a life-changing decision. She quit her stable job as a schoolteacher, moved to Toronto and enrolled in medical school. She was going to become a doctor. It was a dramatic move – but what made this decision even more radical is that it took place at the turn of the 20th century, when women comprised less than 0.5% of all physicians in Canada. 

Despite the challenges she faced, a determined Jane Sproule enrolled in the Ontario Medical College for Women in 1904. When the College closed in 1906, she continued her studies at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, which had just opened its doors to women that year. She graduated with the Class of 1907 and began post-graduate studies at Toronto General Hospital and Grace Hospital. 

It was there that she realized that she wanted to specialize in otolaryngology – the treatment of patients with ear, nose and throat disorders. However, although women could now be doctors, training in specialized fields of medicine was still out of their reach in Canada. Therefore, like many Canadian medical women, Dr. Sproule travelled to Europe to further her studies, training in clinics in London, Vienna and Berlin. In 1911, she received her medical license from the Royal College of Physicians in London. That year, she was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons of England after becoming the first Canadian woman to sit for its primary examinations. 

Dr. Sproule returned to Canada as a trained otolaryngologist and became the first woman medical specialist in the country. She immediately joined the staff of the newly founded Women’s College Hospital at 18 Seaton Street and operated the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic that ran out of the hospital’s Outpatient Department on Fridays mornings. 

In 1916, Dr. Sproule, accompanied by two other women doctors affiliated with Women’s College Hospital, travelled overseas to serve in a military hospital in London for the remainder of World War I. She returned to Toronto in 1918 and married her long-time sweetheart James Manson in a quiet ceremony. After a short honeymoon, she continued her medical work at WCH.

As the patient load dramatically increased at WCH during the 1920s, the hospital expanded its medical staff, departments and services. In 1924, WCH established a Department of Otolaryngology and appointed Dr. Sproule Manson as its chief. By the end of its first year, the department had conducted 211 operations - mainly the removal of tonsils and adenoids. 

Dr. Sproule Manson remained chief of the department until 1940. Her retirement was announced at the hospital’s annual general meeting, where she was described as “a pillar of the institution.” Years later, in 1951, Women’s College Hospital recognized her thirty years of service and dedication to women and children’s health by naming its new children’s ward in her honour.

Interestingly, this is not where the story of Dr. Jane Sproule Manson ends. Although she never had children of her own, she had a special relationship with her niece, Margaret. Jane was Margaret’s role model; her niece loved to hear stories about WCH and her aunt’s medical work so much that she followed in her aunt’s footsteps and became a doctor specializing in the same medical field. Dr. Sproule Manson even helped to pay for Margaret’s medical education. 

In 1935, after Dr. Margaret McEachern graduated from medical school, she accepted a position as first assistant in the Department of Otolaryngology at WCH. Five years later, she was appointed as the Chief of Otolaryngology, replacing her aunt. She remained in the position until 1966.

In February, the Archives of Women’s College Hospital had the privilege of being introduced to two more generations of Dr. Jane Sproule Manson’s family. Mary Jane, daughter of Dr. Margaret McEachern, and her niece, Sylvia, spent time in the Archives learning about the fascinating medical careers of their ancestors through historical photographs, newspaper clippings and documents. They left excited to share what they had learned with their family. 

Dr. Jane Sproule Manson was not only a trailblazer in the field of otolaryngology, but as the first female medical specialist in Canada, she opened the door for women doctors to expand their careers into medical fields traditionally closed to women. 

International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to recognize the historic accomplishments of great women. One day, Mary Jane and Sylvia’s children and grandchildren will get to hear the story of Dr. Sproule Manson and know that not only did she serve as an inspiration to the women in their family, but to a whole generation of medical women in Canada!

To learn more about the Archives of Women’s College Hospital, please click here or contact Heather Gardiner at heather.gardiner@wchospital.ca or 416-323-6323 ext. 4076. 
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