From the archives: Celebrating 100+ years of helping women advance careers in the health sciences

This National Volunteer Week we celebrate the generous support and contributions made by the Association of Volunteers of Women’s College Hospital (WCH). This group of dedicated volunteers has been making a difference in the lives of patients and hospital staff for over 105 years! 

While we most often recognize WCH volunteers for their dedicated service and fundraising efforts, for over a century our volunteers have also been quietly committed to supporting new generations of healthcare professionals at WCH.

WCH was founded to provide female doctors with a place to study and practice medicine at a time when there were few opportunities available to women in the medical field. However, as Canadian hospitals continued to limit medical internships and residencies for women during the first half of the 20th century, WCH remained committed to advancing training for young women doctors. To assist with these efforts, in 1919 WCH volunteers began hosting receptions for female undergraduate medical students from the University of Toronto (UofT). These small gatherings held within the hospital were designed to inspire and provide young women with an opportunity to see “the future that lies before women physicians and women specialists.” Our volunteers continued to support medical interns, and later medical residents, through the funding of small comforts in the hospital such as student lounges as well as unique learning opportunities.

In 1948, our volunteers helped to establish and fund an annual pathology fellowship at WCH to encourage women to pursue advanced training in laboratory sciences. As WCH’s superintendent, Dorothy Macham explained, “This is an entirely new venture which will give opportunity to a young woman each year to further her studies in the pathology – a field at present time so narrow that women in particular have difficulty in getting this training.”

One of the first recipients of this fellowship was Dr. Dorothy Ley, a graduate of UofT who had previously trained at the Banting Institute in pathological chemistry. Following her fellowship at WCH, Dr. Ley went on to work with the National Research Council and the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation. She was later appointed Head of Hematology and Oncology at Western Hospital.

WCH volunteers were also one of the first groups to support the WCH School of Nursing. From 1915-1975, more than 1,250 young women earned nursing diplomas from the hospital-based nursing program. In 1918, our volunteers raised money through door-to-door canvassing to help WCH purchase a larger student nurses’ residence as the nursing program expanded. Over the next forty years, the volunteers continued to help furnish and maintain multiple student nurses’ residences and even established a nursing library for the students. Beginning in the late 1930s, our volunteers also sponsored three annual scholarships for WCH graduates to encourage advanced training in the nursing field.

Today, the Association of Volunteers continues to support students at WCH through an annual gift to the Women’s College Research Institute’s Summer Student Research Program. This unique educational opportunity encourages undergraduate and graduate students to consider careers in health sciences research. With the goal of improving diversity in medical research, the program aims to support students who identify with groups that have been historically under-represented in the research field.

Thanks to the continued support of the Association of Volunteers, WCH has been able to offer unique training, mentorship, and learning opportunities. For over a century, the volunteers’ support has offered encouragement to those entering a variety of healthcare disciplines and has helped to break down barriers for those who have been historically excluded from the healthcare field.

Women’s College Hospital Foundation extends its deepest gratitude to the Association of Volunteers for their unwavering dedication to the Women’s College Hospital and the next generation of bright young healthcare professionals.