5 Noteworthy Historical Canadian Female Doctors and Leaders

“If you don’t see a clear path for what you want, sometimes you have to make it yourself” (Mindy Kaling)

Women in medicine would not be where they are now without the perseverance and grit exemplified by some of Canada’s most notable female physicians and medical leaders. 

The social climate in Canada began to evolve in 1942 when women finally had a seat at the table in medicine. Many believed women did not need to seek out higher education in fear that their presence would diminish the quality of lectures – a mindset now realized to be completely inaccurate. 

Women’s History Month is dedicated to reflecting on the overlooked achievements and contributions made by women across the country. In 2022, the Women’s History Month theme is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope” – a tribute to the selfless work made by frontline workers throughout the pandemic. 

To honour this theme, we highlighted 5 Noteworthy Historical Canadian Female Doctors and Leaders who have impacted Canadian healthcare and eliminated gender stereotypes around women in medicine. This article only features a portion of the many well-deserving and remarkable women in the field. Continue reading to discover more about who they are, their accomplishments, and their legacies…

Emily Howard Jennings Stowe, MD (1867 – 1903)

Dr. Emily Howard Jennings Stowe was the first-ever Canadian female to graduate with a medical doctorate. After being denied entrance to the University of Toronto, Dr. Stowe left Canada to attend the New York Medical College for Women. Post-graduation in 1867, she opened a practice in Toronto, ON, and began her journey as a pioneer for women’s rights including suffrage, education, and medical education. 

Dr. Stowe continued to showcase her passion for women in medicine by creating the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. She also founded the influential Toronto Women’s Literary Club, an institution committed to making change for women in all aspects of life. Dr. Emily Stowe’s legacy is forever celebrated as shown by her induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2018.

Fun fact: Dr. Emily Stowe’s daughter was the first woman to earn an MD from a Canadian medical school! 

Jennie Kidd Trout, MD (1841 – 1921)

Dr. Trout became the first woman to legally practice medicine in Canada after graduating from the Woman’s Medical College in Pennsylvania in 1875 and moving back to Canada. She received a license to practice from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario (CPSO). Here, she facilitated specialized treatment for women including electrotherapy, while offering free dispensary care for patients who could not afford it.

Her passion for medicine did not stop there. Dr. Trout was involved in establishing a medical school for women at Queen’s University. Moreover, she headed the Women’s Temperance Union, a movement based on the belief that drinking was responsible for many of society’s illnesses – ultimately leading to the prohibition. Within the temperance movement, she acted as Vice-President, as well as Vice-President of the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Maude Abbott, MD (1868 – 1940)

Dr. Maude Abbott is a trailblazer for women and advanced the knowledge of congenital heart disease on a global scale. Dr. Abbott was one of the first women to obtain a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University and was the only woman in her medical school class. 

She founded the Federation of Medical Women of Canada (FMWC), an influential force in the Canadian medical space that advocates on behalf of women physicians and women’s health – which is continuing to date with Dr. Gigi Osler acting as president.

She can further be recognized for her work in the cardiology space. In 1936, Dr. Abbott published “Atlas of Congenital Heart Disease, a document that improved the understanding of the heart’s anatomy and built a foundation for many modern heart procedures performed today.

Elizabeth Bagshaw, MD (1881 – 1982)

Pioneering family planning in Canada, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw is best known for her active involvement in Canada’s first and illegal birth control clinic. For over thirty years, she served as the clinic’s Medical Director helping pioneer areas of Family Medicine that are now universal and vastly important to women. 

Dr. Bagshaw’s success stems from a 70-year career as a Family Medicine Physician with a primary focus on obstetrics, as well as her involvement in the foundation of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada. In 1979, she was awarded the Governor General’s Person award for efforts to advance the status of women in Canada.

Bette Stephenson, MD (1924 – 2019)

Dr. Bette Stephenson was the first woman to be elected as President of the Canadian Medical Association in its 106-year existence. She is the individual responsible for placing the practice of Family Medicine on the international medicine map and inspired countless women to pursue careers in the field.

Dr. Stephenson’s passion was in the practice of Family Medicine. She helped create the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) to promote the importance of family doctors. In addition to these successes, Dr. Bette chaired the first and second national conferences on education and general practice, aided in the passing of Bill 82 and the Special Education Act, and was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2013.