International Women’s Day: Recognizing Dr. Emma Leila Skinner Gordon

March 3, 2023

By Heather Gardiner

Moved by Dr. [Skinner] Gordon that the Board be asked to give a reception to the undergraduate medical women early in October in order to create a bond of sympathy and establish for the students a centre which each may feel personally and vitally interested.

Minutes of the WCH Advisory Board, September 8, 1919.
Dr. EL Skinner Gordan, 1930s

This International Women’s Day, the Miss Margaret Robins Archives of Women’s College Hospital (WCH) is highlighting the accomplishments of one of WCH’s founders – Dr. Emma Leila Skinner Gordon. Dr. Skinner Gordon not only helped to establish the first Women’s College Hospital, but throughout her career, she was committed to supporting and encouraging young women entering the medical profession in Canada.

Skinner Gordon enrolled in the Ontario Medical College for Women (OMCW) in 1892. After completing four years of coursework, she wrote her medical exams at the University of Toronto and earned a Bachelor of Medicine degree in 1896 and a Medical Degree from Trinity College in 1900. She joined the teaching staff of the OMCW and taught courses in obstetrics and gynecology.

In 1898 when the OMCW established the Women’s Dispensary to provide its female medical students with essential clinical training, Dr. Skinner Gordon joined the Dispensary Board and began supervising students in one of its daily clinics. A few years later, she launched a gynecology clinic at the Dispensary to provide the students with specialized training.

In addition to her work at the Dispensary, Dr. Skinner Gordon opened her own private practice, primarily comprised of maternity cases, out of her home on Yonge Street just North of College. Keenly aware of the lack of clinical training opportunities available to new female doctors, Dr. Skinner Gordon provided internships for women at her private practice. One of her most famous interns was Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw. From 1905-1906, Dr. Bagshaw apprenticed with Dr. Skinner Gordon before moving to Hamilton, Ontario to start her own private practice. Dr. Bagshaw would go on to become the medical director of Canada’s first birth control clinic.

Dr. Skinner Gordon was also one of the original members of the committee to establish a women’s hospital in Toronto that began meeting in March 1899. Almost a decade later she was appointed chair of its new building committee. Her primary responsibility was to search out an appropriate facility to accommodate an inpatient hospital along with the existing Women’s Dispensary. Dr. Skinner Gordon helped to acquire a small residential house at 18 Seaton Street – home to the first Women’s College Hospital.

Dr. Skinner Gordon served on WCH’s original medical staff and on its first Board of Directors. Later, she was instrumental in organizing fundraising campaigns to purchase a larger hospital facility at 125 Rusholme Road and fund the construction of various hospital building additions and renovations.

For Dr. Skinner Gordon, the expansion of WCH not only meant the increase of its inpatient capacity and medical services, but more importantly it meant more opportunities to train female physicians in accordance with WCH’s original mandate.

At a fundraising event in April 1916 to expand the hospital, it was explained, “this hospital [WCH] would not only provide the very necessary care for women and girls under women doctors but would give women medical graduates an opportunity to get experience here as interns, instead of going to New York and Philadelphia, as was necessary, since other hospitals [in Toronto] at that time did not allow women doctors on their house staff.”

Throughout the remainder of her career at WCH, Dr. Skinner Gordon helped to organize events for female undergraduate medical students and expand the hospital’s internship program to include first-year female medical students beginning in 1919. She retired from the staff of WCH in February 1923, but continued her private practice until 1936. Dr. Skinner Gordon passed away on March 27, 1949, at the age of 89.

This International Women’s Day we celebrate Dr. Emma Leila Skinner Gordon. She not only played an instrumental role in the founding and evolution of WCH, but she remained committed to supporting the next generation of female physicians in Canada throughout her career.