Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Women’s Dispensary

January 27, 2023

By Heather Gardiner

Women’s College Hospital Dispensary – Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives

February 3rd marks an important milestone in the history of Women’s College Hospital (WCH). On this date in 1898, the Women’s Dispensary officially opened its doors.

The Women’s Dispensary was the first “free clinic” in Toronto operated by female physicians to provide women and their families with medical services free of charge or at a nominal cost. Founded in connection with the Ontario Medical College for Women (OMCW), the Dispensary also served as a valuable teaching facility for female medical students at a time when there were limited opportunities for clinical training in hospitals for women.   

The Women’s Dispensary opened in the basement of the Toronto City Mission located at the corner of St. David and Sackville Streets, only three blocks from the OMCW. The Mission allowed the Dispensary to use its rooms for free and all other expenses related to the clinic were donated by the OMCW Students’ Association. Initially, three clinics were held each week under the supervision of three former graduates and current faculty members of the OMCW – Dr. Susanna Boyle, Dr. Jennie Gray, and Dr. Ida Lynd. During its first year of operation, the Dispensary recorded approximately 1400 visits.

On April 22, 1899, only one year later, the Globe newspaper reported,

“No institution of the same nature in this city, or throughout the Dominion for that matter, is doing a greater worker than that being accomplished by the Women’s Dispensary in connection with the Ontario Medical College for Women…The indications are that during the second year, the number of patients will reach the two thousand mark. The need of such an establishment, in view of these figures, cannot be disputed.”

The Dispensary was so well attended by the community, additional clinics were added, and larger accommodations were required. The Dispensary was relocated to the basement of the OMCW building where a board composed of faculty and medical staff oversaw the management of the clinic.

First year medical students at the OMCW trained in dispensing medications in the clinic’s pharmacy. Students in their final years received clinical training in obstetrics, gynecology, general medicine, and surgery. By 1900, the Dispensary was holding clinics six days a week.  

In 1899, doctors and community members affiliated with the Dispensary formed the WCH Committee in hopes of establishing a women’s inpatient hospital to be joined with the Dispensary.

It was argued at the time that, “the growing importance of the dispensary, the pressing need for it and the fact beyond dispute that patients who would not go to a masculine doctor for treatment are being treated there have impressed those at the head of the affairs with the belief that the erection in this city of a hospital for women, conducted by women doctors, cannot long be delayed.”

Although the OMCW closed in 1905, the Dispensary continued to thrive. Historical records show there were more than 41,000 visits to the Dispensary between 1898 and 1911. The WCH Committee finally achieved its goal on November 10, 1911, with the opening of the Women’s College Hospital and Dispensary in a small residential house at 18 Seaton Street. As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Dispensary, its significance in the history of WCH cannot be overstated. The success of the Women’s Dispensary as the first free clinic for women in Toronto operated by female physicians proved that by the turn of the 20th century, women in Canada were eager for specialized care provided by trusted female health professionals – leading the way for the establishment of WCH.