140th Anniversary of Woman’s Medical College

September 14, 2023

October 1st marks an important anniversary in the history of Women’s College Hospital. On this date, 140 years ago, Woman’s Medical College (WMC), Canada’s first medical school for women, officially opened its doors. Prior to its establishment, a few Canadian medical schools had tried “co-education,” however open hostility towards female students from male students and professors caused most medical schools to abandon the idea of medical education for women. As a result, Canadian women who wished to pursue careers in medicine were generally forced to study abroad.

One such woman was Emily Stowe. In 1865, Stowe was denied entry into the Toronto School of Medicine because she was a woman. She, instead, went to the United States and enrolled in the New York Medical School for Women. In 1867, she graduated and returned to Toronto to open a private practice – becoming Canada’s first female physician to practice medicine.

Dr. Stowe believed that women in Canada deserved equal access to higher education, including medical education. As her daughter, Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen, would later explain, her mother was “a pioneer, and a reformer…. A woman, who lived at a time when but few opportunities presented for women, and who passed her life in a constant endeavour to better conditions for all oppressed classes; but who stood unswervingly, for freer and larger opportunities for women.”

By the 1880s, with little progress in advancing medical education for women in Canada, Dr. Stowe was determined to open a medical college for women in Toronto. On June 13, 1883, she helped organize a public meeting of the Woman’s Suffrage Club at Shaftesbury Hall. With male and female supporters by her side, it was resolved “that medical education for women is a recognized necessity, and consequently facilities for such instruction should be provided.” It was added “that the establishment of such a school was a public necessity and in the interests of the community.”

On October 1, 1883, Dr. Emily Stowe and her daughter proudly attended the official opening of WMC at 227 Sumach Street. Both men and women sat on the medical college’s board of directors as well as taught at the school. While the school did not grant degrees, after completing four years of studies, students were allowed to write their final medical exams at the University of Trinity College. In addition to offering all the same courses as medical schools for men, WMC included further learning opportunities for its students. As explained in its 1891-1892 Annual Announcement,

“Recognizing the great importance of the clinical study of Diseases of Women and Children to women students, the Faculty have still further amplified the course instruction on these subjects by the addition of special practical classes in Gynaecology and Diseases of Children.”

In 1890, the medical school moved to a larger building at 291 Sumach Street to accommodate its growing student population. The following year, it began operating a midwifery service. In 1894, WMC welcomed the students at the short-lived Kingston Women’s Medical College after its closure, and the school was renamed the Ontario Medical College for Women (OMCW). In 1898, three of the school’s graduates, Dr. Ida Lynd, Dr. Jennie Gray, and Dr. Susanna Boyle established the Women’s Dispensary – an outpatient clinic for women that allowed the students of the OMCW to receive clinical training under the supervision of female physicians.

In 1905, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine began accepting women into its program and the OMCW closed its doors in the spring of 1906. The Women’s Dispensary remained open and continued to serve the women of Toronto. Its doctors gained support from the community to add an inpatient hospital to the existing dispensary. In 1911, Women’s College Hospital opened its doors as Canada’s first women’s general hospital operated by female doctors.

The opening of WMC is not only an important milestone in our hospital’s history, but also in the history of women in medicine in Canada. During its 22-years of operation, 128 women graduated from WMC, and its graduates would go on to become part of the first generation of female doctors in Canada. Our name, Women’s College Hospital, was chosen by our founders to pay tribute to our beginnings as a medical college for women and to always remind us of the challenges that early women in the medical profession overcame in this country.