Celebrating 100 Years of Breaking Down Barriers for Women in Sciences

2020-07-09 4:15:46 PM

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Laboratories at Women’s College Hospital (WCH). Laboratories and laboratory professionals have been vital to patient care throughout WCH’s history. While this department largely operates behind-the-scenes, it has also proudly played an instrumental role in helping to break down barriers for women in laboratory sciences in Toronto over the last century.

WCH’s Department of Laboratories’ humble beginnings date back to the summer of 1920 when the hospital converted two of its treatment rooms into dedicated labs and appointed staff pathologist, Dr. Vivian Laughlen as its first director. Within a few years of its opening, WCH publicly proclaimed its “laboratory stands ready to render almost any service that is afforded in the larger hospitals.”

Beginning in the 1930s, WCH’s Department of Laboratories became an early leader in the training of women medical laboratory technicians. The department offered lab internships to female students at a time when learning opportunities in laboratory sciences in were limited for women. By the mid-1950s, WCH boosted the largest class of laboratory technicians in any Toronto hospital – all female.

To encourage women to pursue advanced training in laboratory sciences, WCH began offering an annual pathology fellowship for women in 1948. The fellowship was fully funded by WCH’s Hospital Aid (precursor to the Association of Volunteers). As hospital superintendent, Dorothy Macham explained, “This is an entirely new venture which will give opportunity to a young woman each year to further her studies in the pathology – a field at present time so narrow that women in particular have difficulty in getting this training.”

Dr. Eva MacDonald, WCH’s then Director of Laboratories, was especially delighted with the new pathology fellowship. She had started her own career in laboratory sciences thanks to a similar fellowship offered by the Rockefeller Foundation and was personally fully aware of the obstacles that young women faced in a field dominated by men.

One of the first recipients of WCH’s fellowship was Dr. Dorothy Ley, a graduate of the University of Toronto who had previously trained at the Banting Institute in pathological chemistry. Following her fellowship at WCH, Dr. Ley went on to work with the National Research Council and the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation. She was later appointed Head of Hematology and Oncology at Western Hospital.

Over the decades, WCH continued to expand its advanced laboratory training program for women. In the mid-1950s, the hospital received approval from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons to begin a post-graduate medical education program in clinical pathology and bacteriology to be operated through its Department of Laboratories. In 1957, WCH welcomed its first two female trainees.

In 1961, WCH became a teaching hospital fully affiliated with the University of Toronto and began accepting men into its training programs, however the hospital’s female leadership continued to encourage women to enroll in these programs.

WCH, like its Department of Laboratories, has been committed to breaking down barriers for women since its establishment. Founded in 1883 as a medical college for women by Dr. Emily Stowe, Canada’s first woman doctor, WCH provided a place where women could study and practice medicine at a time when there were limited opportunities for them. However, today women continue to face challenges in the fields of medicine and health sciences. Currently only 28% of scientists in Canada are women and of that small number, women from diverse communities are barely represented. In response, WCH Foundation has launched The Emily Stowe Society – an initiative to support the engagement, retention, and advancement of young women from communities that are severely underrepresented in health sciences. Through education and mentorship, The Emily Stowe Society supports gender equity and the increased participation of women in the field of medicine and health sciences. 

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Pictured above (L – R): Natasha Kithulegoda, Research Coordinator at WCH Insititute for Health Systems Solutions & Virtual Care; Nishila Mehta, MD/MSc Candidate and Research Fellow at University of Toronto; and Chika Oriuwa, MD/MSc Graduate from University of Toronto.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of WCH’s Department of Laboratories, we also acknowledge its early leadership in the mentoring and training of women in laboratory sciences. Today, WCH remains committed to breaking down barriers for women through initiatives like The Emily Stowe Society.