Women Physicians Change the World

The theme of the 2018 Annual General Meeting and National Conference is - Women Physicians: Changing the World.

We couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate theme to capture the global influence of women in medicine. Since their entry into medicine in the late nineteenth century, Canadian women have travelled the world to bring western medicine to people in need of health care. Medical missionaries to India and China used health care to reinforce missionary messages of Christian love and brotherhood, hoping to win converts through health care. Closer to home, medical women were instrumental in Canadian western expansion, providing health care via horse back or sleigh to their aboriginal and settler neighbours in the far-flung communities of Peace River, Medicine Hat, Pincher Creek and elsewhere.

An early pioneer, Nancy Rodger Chenoweth (MD CM Trinity, 1894) was married to a Methodist minister and practiced medicine in Alberta, then part of the North-West Territories. After her husband died, she took an x-ray course and became renown for her work; patients travelled hundreds of miles in order to benefit from her special machine. Dr. Chenoweth pursued the latest technology to improve her practice. Another intrepid pioneer, Anne Ella Carveth Higbee (MD CM Trinity, 1893), practiced in the Peace River region as Dr. Annie, where she could be found travelling by horse in the summer and one-horse sleigh in the winter.

Dr. Susie Rijnhart in Tibetan dress Date 1901(1901) Source "With t...
Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Further afield, the story of Suzanna Carson Rijnhart and her Dutch missionary husband, Petrus, who arrived in Tibet in 1895, is one that highlights the dangers missionaries experienced in a world hostile to strangers. Tibet was closed to visitors, yet despite this, the Rijnhart’s were able to sneak in and quietly gain the respect of their Tibetan neighbours through their healing practices and their gentle approach to conversion. Their missionary work was interrupted due to the mysterious death of Petrus while both where travelling back to China, and when the Chinese backlash against foreigners eventually forced her to leave China she returned to Canada and gave lectures on her experiences, raising money for her return to Tibet.

Dr. Elizabeth Beatty front right & Medical Staff in India
Source: Dr. Elizabeth Beatty Collection, Leeds & Thousand Islands Historical Society

Elizabeth Beatty was a member of the first group of women studying medicine at Queens’ in Kingston in the summer of 1880, making Canadian medical history. Dr. Beatty became a missionary in India, setting off in 1884 as Canada’s first woman missionary working with the Indian population, setting up her residence as a dispensary and four-bed hospital. The Maharani of Indore was so impressed with her dedication to her work that she was given land for a hospital, the first women’s hospital in Central India. Dr. Beatty had to return to Canada due to ill health, but her work laid the foundation for what was to become “Canada’s greatest medical mission.”

Canadian women physicians were early supporters of the suffrage movement, with Dr. Emily Stowe leading the way. They contributed materially to both the settlement of Canada and the health of the country, earning respect among aboriginal and settler communities alike; they engaged in international missionary work, spreading the word of god through healthcare; they served in the military, breaking ground for the woman who would follow; and, in humanitarian work in conflict and crises zones with non-governmental organizations: Medecins sans Frontieres, Red Cross, the members of the Women, Peace and Security Network, Amnesty International, and War Child-Canada.

War Child was founded in 1993 by British filmmakers, Bill Leeson and David Wilson to bring attention to the horrific conditions that children experienced in war. A country chapter was established in the Netherlands, and in 1998, Dr. Samantha Nutt (MD, McMaster)  founded War Child Canada and, more recently, War Child US. In the years since, Dr. Nutt has travelled around the world to raise awareness and funds for programs to help address the plight of women and children caught up in such conflict zones as: Afghanistan, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Darfur, South Sudan, Burundi, northern Uganda, Ethiopia and the Thai-Burmese border; some of the most war-devastated environments in the world. She has brought attention to the effect of war on our most vulnerable people: children. By addressing education, opportunity and justice, War Child "gives children in war-affected communities the chance to reclaim their childhood and break the cycle of poverty and violence".

Dr. Nutt has been named a member of the Order of Canada, and the Order of Ontario, in addition to a number of international awards. She was named an Honorary Member of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada in 2013, joining a long list of women who have "rendered outstanding service to one or more of the following: medicine, women's health, women physicians and/or the FMWC".

We're getting ready to honour our 2018 award winners at the Annual General Meeting and National Conference in September. We hope you’ll join us.

We'd like to hear from you..... Canadian medical women have made history and changed the world. Share the story of a star you would like to see shine...




Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors, Clarke, Irwin & Company Ltd, Toronto/Vancouver, 1974

Dr. Samantha Nutt:
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