Group of women in a well lit room, each woman is holding a baby or young infant. The women are dressed in 20th century formal dresses and hats. The photograph is dated "Sep, 16. 1914" and is in black and white.

Healthcare Legacies: Women’s College Hospital

Women’s College Hospital

Group of women in a well lit room, each woman is holding a baby or young infant. The women are dressed in 20th century formal dresses and hats. The photograph is dated "Sep, 16. 1914" and is in black and white.

Women’s Dispensary, Baby Clinic, 18 Seaton Street, September 16, 1914. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

A black-and-white cameo image of a woman. She is wearing glasses. Her hair is up and she has a part at the center.
Portrait of Dr. Emily Stowe, Toronto, circa 1885. Image by Herbert E. Simpson. Courtesy of Laurier University.

Portrait of Dr. Emily Stowe, Toronto, circa 1885. Image by Herbert E. Simpson. Courtesy of Laurier University.

A black-and-white cameo of a woman. She is facing to the left. Her hair is a light colour.
Portrait of Dr. Jennie Trout, Ontario, circa 1895. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Portrait of Dr. Jennie Trout, Ontario, circa 1895. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

A photo of a symmetrical building. The buildings is about 10 stories high with a small addition on each side of the roof. In front of it is a Victorian style building.
Women’s College Hospital, Grenville St. Toronto, 1935. Image courtesy of The City of Toronto Archives.

Women’s College Hospital, Grenville St. Toronto, 1935. Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

Women in healthcare

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, women often acted as healers for their communities. Many women worked as midwives, learning skills passed along from other female community or family members. Before widespread access to hospitals in Canada, many women served as “sick nurses” in private homes. These women would often stay with an ill patient, administering medication and offering pain relief.

However, as the medicine became increasingly professionalized in Canada during the 19th century, women were excluded from their traditional roles. Women were barred from attending Canadian medical schools or applying for a medical license. Many women continued to act as healers and midwives informally, but without the accreditation or legal approval of a professional medical doctor.

 

Emily Jennings Stowe

Born in 1831, Emily Jennings Stowe discovered her passion for healing and medicine at a young age. After her husband caught tuberculosis in 1863, she decided to formally pursue medicine. However, Stowe was denied entrance into the Toronto School of Medicine in 1865.

Determined to study medicine, Stowe left Canada to attend the New York Medical College for Women, receiving her degree in 1867. She returned to Canada that same year and opened a medical practice on Richmond Street, gaining prominence through newspaper advertisements and public lectures on women’s health. Stowe developed a city-wide reputation for her specialty in treating diseases in women and children.

 

Licensing Women to Practice in Canada

In 1870, the president of the Toronto School of Medicine granted special permission to Stowe and fellow female student Jennie Kidd Trout to attend classes. As the only two women at the School, Stowe and Trout supported each other as students.

At that time, medical practitioners with foreign licenses were required to sit exams before they could lawfully practice medicine in Canada. This requirement was extended to Stowe and Trout, who both had obtained their medical licenses in the United States. However, the male faculty and students were so hostile to their female classmates that Stowe left the school, refusing to take the exams.

However, Jennie Trout continued with the classes and exams, passing her courses in 1872, becoming the first licensed female medical professional in Canada.

Medical care for women, by women

Emily Stowe was finally granted a Canadian medical license in 1880 from the College of Surgeons and Physicians of Ontario due to her credentials and apprentice work. A few years later, her daughter, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, became the first woman to earn a medical degree in Canada in 1883.

After getting her license, Stowe lobbied for women’s medical education with the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Club. In 1883, the group succeeded and the Mayor of Toronto, A.R. Boswell, opened the Woman’s Medical College at 289 Sumach Street. Dr. Stowe continued to work to make medical education more accessible to women.

In 1895, the Woman’s Medical College changed its name to the Ontario Medical College for Women to better reflect its significance to women’s medical studies in the province. By 1898, the teaching facilities had expanded to offer medical services for women, by women.

The Dispensary

The Women’s Medical College worked closely with a medical clinic known as the Dispensary. At the clinic, female patients could be treated by women doctors regardless of their ability to pay. In 1909, a group of prominent women formed the Women’s College Hospital Committee in Toronto, with the hope of turning the Dispensary into a hospital. Opening in 1913 with only seven beds, the new hospital occupied the upper story of a small house at 18 Seaton Street.

On February 5, 1924, the hospital was renamed the Women’s College Hospital and, in 1935, moved to its current location. In 1961, it became a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto. Women’s College Hospital has contributed to many innovations in women’s healthcare, including being the first Ontario hospital to use mammography to detect breast cancer in 1963.