Celebrating Women’s History Month at Women’s College Hospital

Medical staff meeting ca. 1940

Celebrating Women’s History Month at Women’s College Hospital

The history of Canadian women in medicine is full of stories of female determination and perseverance. This Women’s History Month we celebrate the achievements of early women doctors at Women’s College Hospital who contributed to the field of medical research in Canada.

While women have remained largely hidden from the early history of medical research, a small group of female medical pioneers bravely led the way for future generations of women scientists. Many of these women were on the staff of Canada’s first women’s general hospital operated by female doctors – Women’s College Hospital (WCH).

When WCH opened its doors in 1911, there were less than 200 female doctors in Canada. WCH provided a place where female physicians, surgeons, and specialists could study and practice medicine at a time when very few women doctors were allowed to practice in Canadian hospitals. Even fewer women doctors had the opportunity to conduct medical research. At WCH, the doctors found a supportive and collaborative environment where they were encouraged to conduct medical research in areas that were important to them and to their patients.

In 1939, Dr. Helen Bell Milburn (1892-1986) helped to establish WCH’s Breast Cancer Research Committee. As an early pioneer in radiology, the aspiring cancer researcher believed medical research held the key to understanding this devastating disease. In 1945, Dr. Milburn and her team launched one of Canada’s earliest long-term breast cancer studies at WCH.

Around the same time, WCH’s Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Marion Hilliard (1902-1958) focused resources on investigating another form of women’s cancer – cervical cancer. By the 1940s, it was the second most common type of cancer in women aged 35 to 50 in Canada. Yet, it was estimated that 90% to 100% of cases were curable, if detected early. While the Pap Test was an effective screening tool, it was not widely used in Canada because few hospitals had the resources necessary to process the test.

Dr. Hilliard believed that if a simpler test was invented, more tests would be performed. In 1948, Dr. Hilliard collaborated with WCH’s Dr. Eva Mader Macdonald (1902-1997) and the University of Toronto’s Dr. W. L. Robinson to develop a simplified Pap Test. After two years of clinical testing at WCH, Dr. Hilliard published their successful findings in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The development of the simplified Pap Test helped to lay the groundwork for Ontario’s first Cancer Detection Clinic (CDC) for women at WCH. The CDC became the site of many women’s cancer research studies at WCH over the next three decades.

In 1963, WCH’s Henrietta Banting (1912-1976) and Dr. Elizabeth Forbes (1917-1999) launched a clinical study out of the CDC to examine the use of mammography as an effective tool for the early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer. Funded by the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation, their three-year study proved that mammography was a valuable diagnostic tool when used alongside physical examinations. In 1967, Dr. Forbes and Dr. Banting published one of the first Canadian studies on mammography and influenced a new standard for women’s cancer screening in Canada.

This Women’s History Month we celebrate the women from our history who brought new ideas, different perspectives, and unique life experiences to medical research. Their work at WCH has led to many advances and innovations in women’s health. Today we continue to build upon their legacy at the Women’s College Research Institute, where we remain committed to advancing gender equality through medical research.