The names of women are conspicuously absent from the lists of famous Canadian medical pioneers. During the 19th Century, while male physicians and surgeons were exploring new treatments and innovative medical procedures, Canadian women were struggling for the mere right to practice medicine. For them, acceptance into a medical school was a major achievement. The two women most responsible for breaking down the barriers and advancing medical training for women in Canada were Emily Stowe and Jennie Kidd Trout.
In 1875, Jennie Trout became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada. Born in 1841, Jennie grew up on a farm near Stratford, Ontario. A quiet, reserved child, Jennie excelled in school. Upon graduation, she took one of the few career paths open to women and began teaching in a public school. She taught in Stratford until she married Edward Trout in 1865.
A lengthy illness occupied the next six years of Jennie Trout’s life, but when she recovered, she decided to take up a career in medicine. Jennie’s plans were encouraged by her husband, as well as by her longtime friend and mentor, Emily Stowe, who had been practising medicine in Toronto since 1867 although she was not licensed by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Entering a Man’s World
During most of the last century professional medical practice was exclusively a male domain. Hospitals were designed for the poor, since wealthy people could afford home treatment. In most hospitals, nursing care was provided by nursing sisters, or nuns. In cases where lay women acted as nurses, they were treated as little more than servants, with no professional respect. Florence Nightingale’s campaign to create a nursing profession only began to have an impact in Canada late in the nineteenth century.
In this climate, it is not surprising that the male medical establishment was hostile to the idea of educated and paid female doctors. When the Toronto School of Medicine reluctantly allowed Jennie Trout and Emily Stowe to attend lectures, it was on the condition that they “make no fuss, whatever happened.” Plenty happened. Trout and Stowe were the only women in a lecture hall filled with men. Led by the lecturers themselves, the male students jeered at the women. Obscene sketches had to be white-washed from the walls four times in the course of the lectures.
Finally, Trout went to the United States for her medical education. She returned to Canada in 1875 with a medical degree from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Licensed to Practice
Back in Ontario, Jennie Trout passed an examination before the College of Physicians and Surgeons, who complimented Mr. Trout for having “such a talented wife.” Jennie Trout went on to practice medicine at Toronto’s Therapeutic and Electrical Institute until 1882, when poor health forced her to retire. Still, she did not abandon the work she had begun, and her next objective was to establish a college for the medical education of women in Canada. After a long campaign to gather support for the college, Trout had another fight to see that women could sit on the college’s board of governors. Finally, the Women’s Medical College at Kingston opened on October 2, 1883, partly supported by a large financial contribution from Trout herself. The heroic struggles of Jennie Kidd Trout – the quiet woman whose life’s aim transcended personal ambition – opened the door for the many Canadian women doctors who came after her.