From the Archives – Women’s College Hospital’s First Research Night

By Heather Gardiner

Did you know that Women’s College Hospital (WCH) established its own research night in the 1930s to provide opportunities for women physicians to share and promote their medical research?

To mark this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Miss Margaret Robins Archives of Women’s College Hospital would like to share an inspiring story from our past. Although Canadian women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have historically faced challenges and barriers that have made their success more difficult, WCH has been committed to the advancement of gender equality in STEM since its founding.

In 1911 a group of determined women established WCH as a place where early female doctors could study, train, and practice medicine. As Canada’s first women’s general hospital operated by female physicians, WCH provided its medical staff with a collaborative and supportive work environment where they could thrive professionally. WCH was filled with like-minded women and free of gender discrimination.

In the early 1920s as enthusiasm for medical research grew in Canada after the discovery of insulin, WCH, too, began encouraging its physicians to explore areas of research that were important to them and to their female patients. By 1928, plans were already underway to build dedicated space for medical research in the new WCH at 76 Grenville Street.

However, even though medical research at WCH was expanding in the 1930s, its researchers still faced challenges that were unique to women in STEM. It was more difficult for women researchers to share their findings with the wider scientific community. Women scientists were less likely to have their research published in peer reviewed journals or be invited to share their work at scientific conferences. Undeterred, WCH’s medical staff believed that their new hospital building provided them with a unique opportunity to showcase their own research.  

On the evening of November 3, 1938, WCH held its first research night in the foyer of the hospital. The medical staff personally invited all female physicians in Toronto and the surrounding area to attend. At the event, papers were presented by Dr. Eva Mader Macdonald, hospital bacteriologist, and Dr. Elizabeth Stewart, Head of WCH’s Department of Radiology. According to the WCH medical staff minutes, “there was quite a gratifying response” to the event.

The success of the first research night led to the establishment of a biannual research symposium at WCH. Each symposium was assigned a theme by the medical staff and invitations were now extended to all female physicians in Ontario. Records in the archives show that almost sixty women doctors attended the first symposium held in March 1939. It is also interesting to note that the medical staff committee made copies of each research paper and distributed them through the hospital. The biannual research symposium would continue for many years and then evolve back into an annual research night for the WCH medical staff.   

As we celebrate this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we also recognize WCH’s historical commitment to provide women with unique opportunities to gain access to and participate fully in the STEM fields – a important tradition that continues today.