WCH celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Cancer Detection Clinic for Women

April 3, 2023

By Heather Gardiner

This year on April 7 marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of Ontario’s first cancer detection clinic for women at Women’s College Hospital (WCH).

The Cancer Detection Clinic (CDC) was officially opened on April 7, 1948, by special guest of honour, Dr. Elise Depew Strang L’Esperance, who helped to establish many of the earliest cancer detection and treatment centres for women in the United States.

Viewed as ground-breaking at the time, the CDC at WCH screened “well women” (those who showed no symptoms) for the early signs of cancer – a practice that was unheard of at the time.

The CDC was established thanks to the commitment and perseverance of two of WCH’s pioneering doctors, Dr. Florence McConney and Dr. Marion Hilliard. In 1947, Dr. McConney was inspired by an article published in the Journal of the American Women’s Medical Association about clinics for the early detection of cancer in women in the United States. Dr. McConney knew that over the past decade WCH had proven itself to be a strong and innovative leader in the field of women’s cancers with the launch of its long term breast cancer study in 1945 and its development of the simplified Pap Test in 1947. She believed that WCH was the “logical place to have one in Canada.”

While Dr. McConney found support and encouragement at WCH among the medical staff and its board of directors, funding for the establishment of the CDC proved to be a challenge.

The Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation – known today as Cancer Care Ontario – agreed to help fund the new clinic on the condition that Dr. McConney received the approval of the local and provincial medical associations. She, along with her WCH colleague, Dr. Marion Hilliard, met with external officials and explained that a cancer detection clinic for women would benefit all women. Surprisingly, the two doctors were met with opposition. Dr. Hilliard recalled that many thought the clinic would be a “waste of time for a busy hospital.” But, after a “somewhat heated discussion,” Dr. McConney and Dr. Hilliard were ultimately successful.

The CDC initially opened in the basement of WCH’s Outpatient Clinic located in a small house on the hospital’s grounds with Dr. McConney as its first medical director. The clinic was staffed by four doctors and two nurses. In 2020, the WCH Archives had the privilege of interviewing Barbara Kennedy, one of the CDC’s first nurses about its daily operations.

“It was a clinic for cancer detection with the Pap smear. That was the big thing, I think, at that point,” Kennedy explained. “And we would have about fifteen patients come for their appointment, and Fanny Cracknell would register them there and take their money – I think it was $15. And then she’d give me the chart and I would make sure that each patient saw four different doctors and had a blood test and then a chest x-ray.”

Kennedy continued, “the four doctors were Dr. Marion Kerr; she did a medical history. Dr. McEachern was the ear, nose, and throat doctor. There was also a surgeon and then a gynaecologist who did the Pap smear. They would do that in the morning and come back after lunch for a chest x-ray at the hospital. It was quite a big success.”

During its first year, the CDC examined just over one thousand women and diagnosed nine cases of cancer. As word spread about its innovative services, there were almost two thousand women on the CDC’s waiting list by the early 1950s.

Over the next four decades, the CDC was relocated to numerous larger spaces to meet the constant growing demand for appointments from its loyal clients from across Ontario. By 1990, the CDC was examining over 5,000 women per year. In addition to being a valuable facility for the early detection and diagnosis of cancer, the CDC became the site of some of WCH’s early research studies on women’s cancers, including one of the first Canadian studies published on mammography conducted by Dr. Henrietta Banting and Dr. Elizabeth Forbes. In 1994, the CDC was renamed Health Watch and expanded its focus on health promotion and education. In 2010, Health Watch closed its doors.

The opening of the CDC marks an important milestone in the history of WCH. Seventy-five years ago, WCH fearlessly launched Ontario’s first cancer detection clinic for women at a time when the practice of screening healthy women for the early signs of cancer was unheard of. For decades, women throughout Ontario made the annual journey to WCH to take part in this innovative and valuable cancer screening program. Today, WCH continues to build upon our legacy in women’s cancers through our programs dedicated to its early detection, treatment and research.