WCH’s Early Women Doctors and the Spirit of Activism

2020-10-08 6:54:31 PM

October is Women’s History Month in Canada! At Women’s College Hospital (WCH), it’s a time when we recognize the accomplishments of trailblazing women from our past who refused to accept the status quo and helped to establish healthcare as we know it today.
In 1911, when WCH opened its doors, there were only 196 female physicians in Canada - a mere fraction of the 7,400 male physicians in the country. Women doctors not only faced barriers and discrimination within the medical community, but also within society at large – all because they were women in a traditional male profession.
As women doctors struggled to take their legitimate place within the medical profession, early medical women were often warned against participating in any forms of social or political activism such as involving themselves in the suffrage movement or attending women’s rights conventions. Women doctors who did not heed this warning risked losing public support or their reputations within the medical community.
This Women’s History Month, we will highlight several of WCH’s early women doctors who bravely fought for meaningful change in society through activism in pursuit of equality.

Dr. Minerva Reid and Gender Parity in Politics
“We are a group of women armed with the most powerful weapon that could be given to us, for which women in past ages have fought hard. Are we measuring up to the ideals which will give the franchise any purpose? - Dr. Minerva Reid, 1929.
After graduating from the Ontario Medical College for Women in 1905, Dr. Minerva Reid went to Great Britain to complete postgraduate studies in surgery. After she returned to Toronto, she joined the staff of Women’s College Hospital (WCH) and was appointed its first chief of surgery in 1915. She was a highly respected woman surgeon, however in Toronto she became better known as a trailblazer for women in local politics.
In 1929, Dr. Reid, who was morally opposed to the provincial government’s stance on alcohol, ran in her first election in her riding of High Park as an independent prohibitionist. Although, Dr. Reid was unsuccessful, historian Frederick Brent Scollie determined that she “secured one of the highest percentage of votes for a woman in this decade”.
Over the next ten years, Dr. Reid continued to run as a candidate in her home riding in federal, provincial, and municipal elections. She not only encouraged women to vote but urged them to run for public office. She believed if more women were elected to public office by women voters, the government would be forced to address issues that were important to families such as public health and social services.
While today women continue to be underrepresented in politics in Canada, their representation is growing. Thanks to the efforts of early women politicians like WCH’s Dr. Minerva Reid, who inspire women to exercise their right to vote and hold public office.
 Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw and Gender Equality in Healthcare


This is Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw – a trailblazer who disrupted the status quo in women’s reproductive health. In 1932 – in defiance of Canada’s criminal code – Dr. Bagshaw opened the country’s first birth control clinic.
Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw graduated from the Ontario Medical College for Women (OMCW) in 1905. Unable to secure a residency at any hospital in Toronto, she interned with Dr. Emma Leila Skinner, a fellow OMCW graduate and founder of a prenatal and natal care clinic for needy women in Toronto. It was during her internship that Dr. Bagshaw made the decision to dedicate her professional career to improving women’s healthcare.
After gaining some clinical experience, Dr. Bagshaw moved to Hamilton, Ontario and started her own private practice. In 1931, she was approached by the Birth Control Society of Hamilton to become the medical director of its new clinic. In defiance of the country’s criminal code – which made it illegal to sell or advertise birth control – Canada’s first birth control clinic opened under the direction of Dr. Bagshaw in 1932.
As Mabel Burns, former executive director of Planned Parenthood in Hamilton explains, “She was a very, very brave woman. She’d see any woman who had need of contraception. She lost friends, the support of the medical colleagues and others, who were shocked with her dabbling in the horrible business of sex and birth control.”
Despite opposition, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw believed that all women should have the right to access birth control. She continued her valuable work at the birth clinic in Hamilton for 34 years.
Thanks to Dr. Bagshaw and other early pioneers of the birth control movement in Canada, in 1969 the criminal code was changed, giving all Canadians the right to plan their families.
Dr. Rowena Hume and Social Equity

This is Dr. Rowena Hume – graduated from the Ontario Medical College for Women in 1899. After completing postgraduate training in obstetrics and gynecology, she returned to Toronto and joined medical staff of the Women’s Dispensary. Dr. Hume was an early member of the committee to establish Women’s College Hospital and in 1911 was appointed its first chief of obstetrics.
In 1923, Dr. Rowena Hume helped to establish WCH’s Community Clinical Association (CCA) to assist Toronto’s most vulnerable. The group’s mission was to operate community clinics that would provide medical attention to the “needy poor” in Toronto. Throughout the 1920s, the CCA ran daily community clinics out of two Toronto locations – the Euclid Avenue Methodist Church and the Fred Victor Mission.
It was through this experience that Dr. Hume became a strong supporter and advocate for Toronto’s homeless population – which was not always a popular view. As documented in the book “Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History”, in the 1930s many in the city held the opinion that “coddling the poor…would only encourage more of the downtrodden to make their way to Toronto’s hostels, and stay in them longer”.
Dr. Rowena Hume vehemently disputed this view and spent most of her life supporting Toronto’s most vulnerable populations. She was actively involved with many local social service charitable organizations including the Salvation Army, the Fred Victor Mission and Alcoholic Anonymous.
Thanks to the efforts of women like Dr. Rowena Hume, Canadians continue to strive for a more equitable society for Canada’s most vulnerable populations.
Dr. Emily Stowe and Women’s Right to Vote


Did you know Dr. Emily Stowe became Canada’s first woman physician in 1867? However, she was only able to achieve this by leaving Canada and pursuing her medical degree in the United States.
Dr. Stowe was no stranger to the challenges that women faced in Canadian society. Years earlier she was denied entry to the University of Toronto and even she obtained her medical degree, she faced numerous challenges from the Ontario licensing board – all because she was a woman. 
As Canadian historian Hilda Ridley explains, “Her own difficulties had but served to intensify in Dr. Stowe a longing and resolution to remove from the path of women some of the disabilities that she had encountered. Instead of resting upon her oars, as she might well have done, she looked, as always forward.”
In 1876, Dr. Stowe organized the Toronto Women’s Literary Society. The small women’s group gradually moved from weekly educational lectures to discussions of improving social conditions for women. As the members wanted to become more active in social reforms, they realized change could only be achieved if women held the right to vote. Under Dr. Stowe’s leadership, Canada’s first women’s suffrage organization was born.
Dr. Emily Stowe is remembered as the founder of Canada’s women’s suffrage movement. She would continue to fight for women’s right to vote until her death in 1903. Although her dream was not realized during her lifetime, Dr. Stowe’s legacy as a lifelong champion of women’s rights in Canada can be seen in the many basic human rights and opportunities that women in Canada possess today.
Dr. Emily Stowe’s grit and determination paved the way for countless women leaders in the field of medicine who followed after her. Building on Dr. Stowe’s legacy, we launched the Emily Stowe Society – a groundbreaking initiative of a community of supporters dedicated to breaking down barriers to careers in health sciences for women and individuals from underrepresented communities. Join the movement to engage, retain and advance women in health research: www.emilystowesociety.ca