Women and Leadership: Women Leaders in Canadian Medicine

It would be easy to say that all women physicians are leaders. They are leaders in their practices, in their communities and on committees, in education, in the military, in humanitarian service. From the beginning of the profession in the mid-nineteenth century, the rigid barriers to women’s education meant that only the most determined women would make it through. Women physicians helped open the doors to greater opportunities for all women. Emily Stowe, who is honoured this year with investiture in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, is but one example of a woman physician leader who fought for greater access for women in medicine as well as expanding women’s rights in the public sphere and spearheading suffrage activities in Canada.

Emily Stowe is our famous “first”: the first woman to practice medicine in Canada. Her daughter, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, was the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical school. The Canadian Medical Association was founded in 1867. Emily Stowe hung up her shingle in 1868, in defiance of the medical men who demanded an exam. As women were barred from medical education in Canada, she believed their biases would taint the process. It took another 13 years before the first group of women entered into medical studies in Kingston and Toronto in 1881, in large part due to the efforts of Emily Stowe.

It’s been 150 years since Emily Stowe opened her practice to women and children. Women’s entry into medicine for many years was rationalized by, and restricted to, the care of women and children. Educational restrictions – quotas – were in place in medical schools to limit the number of admission spots available to women, access to hospital wards was restricted, and career opportunities were closed completely to women unwelcome in a male dominated profession. It comes as no surprise that missionary work was the goal of many early women physicians, their work as physicians valued in the communities they worked in and to the organizations they worked for.

Dr. Bette Stephenson

It took 117 years before a woman, Dr. Bette Stephenson, was elected President of the Canadian Medical Association in 1974. There have been 8 women presidents, over 40 years: 1991 – Dr. Carol Guzman; 1996 Dr. Judith Kazimirski; 2006 - Dr. Ruth Collins-Nakai; 2009 - Dr. Anne Doig; 2012 - Dr. Anna Reid; 2015 - Dr. Cindy Forbes; and in 2019 - Dr. Gigi Osler (President-Elect).

Medical education has been more resistant to change. In July 1999, Dr. Noni MacDonald was appointed dean, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, the first woman dean of a medical faculty in Canada. She was followed in the same year by Dr. Carol Herbert, at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario. There have been 5 women deans over almost 20 years and across 17 medical schools. Dr. Catharine Whiteside, University of Toronto, Dr. Margaret Steele, Memorial University and Dr. Hélène Boisjoly, doyen Université de Montréal, the first women dean of a Quebec medical school.

Women reached parity in Canadian medical schools in 1995, hitting a high of almost 60% in 2001-2003 before dropping slightly to settle around 55%. Women have dominated the statistics of university graduates. One would expect greater representation of women in leadership and on boards. Why this isn’t happening is a question being asked of all sectors, medicine included.

Over the next several months, we’ll be exploring the issue of Women in Leadership in a series of blog posts. This first post, Women Leaders in Canadian Medicine, is an introduction to the series and considers the question: Where are women in Canadian medical leadership?

Answering that question has taken on the nature of a quest. The history of women in Canadian health care is a subset of the history of medicine, a field largely dominated by the accomplishments of men in medicine and the great discoveries in health care. Carlotta Hacker’s The Indomitable Lady Doctors (1974) is a good place to start in finding medical women in Canadian history. Pioneers All: Women Psychiatrists in Canada: A History (1995) by Judith H. Gold, Martine LaLinec-Michaud and Odette Bernazzani tracks the movement of women psychiatrists in the evolution of Canadian psychiatry. And there is a small, but hopefully growing, scholarship on Canadian women physicians: Ethlyn Trapp, Elizabeth Bagshaw, Maude Abbott, Lenora King, Mary Piercy Jackson, Marion Hilliard. There are many stories to be told of Canadian women physicians and their role in shaping the profession and influencing the provision of health care to Canadians.

To help start the conversation, we are creating a spreadsheet of famous firsts for medical women in Canada. The goal is to have it publicly available with links to bios. We're just in the beginning stages and we could use your help.

Who do you know that is a women "first" in Canadian medicine? We want to know!

We’re looking for women in medical leadership firsts – first chairs for each specialty for each school, first chiefs of staff, first public health official, first female physician member of parliament, first female physician member of the provincial assembly, all across the country. We don’t want to lose track of these women and their contribution to the history of Canadian women physicians.



Hacker, Carlotta. The Indomitable Lady Doctors, (1974) Toronto: Clarke Irwin & Co. Ltd.

Jackson, Stewart. A Life not chosen: The story of Ethlyn Trapp and her father, (2009) Victoria: Trafford Publishing

Negodaeff-Tomsik, Margaret. Honour Due: The story of Dr. Leonora Howard King, (1999) Ottawa: Canadian Medical Association

Jackson, Mary Piercy. On the Last Frontier; Pioneering in the Peace River Block, (1933) Toronto

Gold, Judith, Martine Lalinec-Michaud, Odette Bernazzani. Pioneers All. Women Psychiatrists in Canada: A History (1995) Ottwaw: Canadian Psychiatric Association

Glauser, Wendy. “Rise of women in medicine not matched by leadership roles” April 16, 2018, CMAJ Vol. 190(15) E479-E480: https://cmajnews.com/2018/03/26/rise-of-women-in-medicine-not-matched-by-leadership-roles-cmaj-109-5567/

"Women outnumber men at most medical schools", Macleans, Sept 16, 2010: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/how-many-get-in/

Galt, Virginia. "Women are entering the professions in unprecedented numbers" The Globe and Mail, March 24, 2017: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/life-at-work/women-entering-the-professions-in-unprecedented-numbers/article32473175/

Image of Dr. Bette Stephenson:
"International Women’s Day: CMA recognizes over 150 years of leadership and excellence among female physicians" Canadian Medical Association, March 8, 2017: https://www.cma.ca/En/Pages/International-Women%E2%80%99s-Day-CMA-recognizes-over-150-years-of-leadership-and-excellence-among-female-physicians.aspx