Celebrating 60 years of advancing medical education for women

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Women’s College Hospital’s affiliation with the University of Toronto, part of our 135 year – and counting – commitment to advancing gender equality in medical education.

Up until the latter half the 19th century, women were largely absent from higher education in Canada. Without a university degree, women were also excluded from most professional careers in society. For women like Emily Stowe, whose ambition was to become a doctor, this was unacceptable. At the time, no medical school in Canada would allow female students to study medicine. Undeterred, Stowe earned her medical degree in the United States and then returned to Canada to practice to medicine. In 1867, she became Canada’s first woman doctor.

With little progress in gender equality in medical education, Dr. Emily Stowe and her supporters attended a public meeting of the Woman’s Suffrage Club on June 13, 1883. They demanded the establishment of a medical college for women in Toronto. It was argued that “medical education for women is a recognized necessity, and consequently facilities for such instruction should be provided.”

With some support from the public and the medical community, Woman’s Medical College opened its doors to female students on October 1, 1883. Over its 22-year history, 128 women graduated from the school.

In 1898, it opened the Women’s Dispensary to provide clinical training to its students, as most Toronto hospitals would only provide limited, if any, clinical instruction to women. Although the medical college closed in 1905, the Women’s Dispensary expanded, and its doctors began preparing for their next undertaking – establishing a women’s hospital. Their goal was to develop a hospital to provide women doctors with a place to practice; opportunities for female medical graduates to continue their studies; and clinical instruction to female medical students. Women’s College Hospital opened its doors in 1911 and became Canada’s first women’s hospital operated by women doctors.

Although WCH was not formally affiliated with any teaching institution, it remained committed to its original goal of providing training opportunities for medical women in a hospital setting. Historical records show that in 1920, WCH accepted five female interns who were graduates of medical schools throughout Canada and Europe. Over the next few decades, demand for medical internships at WCH increased, as many hospitals in Canada continued to limit the number of opportunities offered to women doctors. This situation puzzled many of the international interns who came to WCH for training. As one intern explained “we heard all was so modern and equal-thinking between men and women” in Canada, but many hospitals “will not accept women interns.”


Dr. Marion Hilliard, Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Women’s College Hospital, c. 1950

In 1951, WCH’s Dr. Marion Hilliard brought forth the motion to begin talks with University of Toronto (UofT) to become a teaching hospital. She contended that achieving university teaching hospital status would not only strengthen the reputation of WCH but also guarantee its survival for future generations of women doctors. Her inspiring speech convinced the medical staff and negotiations with UofT began. A decade later, in 1961, WCH proudly announced it was now a university teaching hospital fully affiliated with UofT. Over the next sixty years, the partnership between WCH and UofT has continued to evolve and grow – ensuring women medical students have access to new and exciting learning opportunities at WCH.

This Gender Equality Week we celebrate WCH’s commitment to ensuring the next generation of women doctors and health professionals have access to quality medical education through teaching and mentorship. As WCH’s founder, Dr. Emily Stowe, and her supporters argued on June 13, 1883, providing women with opportunities to gain access to medical education not only benefits women but is a “public necessity and in the interests of the community.”