Remembering a trailblazer: WCH’s Dr. Alice Gray 

Written by
Heather Gardiner

Written by: Heather Gardiner, WCH Archivist

This Remembrance Day, we pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of the brave individuals who fought to preserve peace and freedom today.  

We are also thankful for the tireless efforts of those who contributed to the Canadian war effort at home, such as Women’s College Hospital’s (WCH) Dr. Alice Gray who was instrumental in helping to develop one of the most notable innovations at the Connaught Labs that has become colloquially synonymous with Allied victory – the wartime mass production of penicillin (Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, 2020). 

Dr. Alice Gray, WCH Laboratory, 1954

In 1945, Dr. Alice Gray joined WCH as a microbiologist. Over the next 35 years, she remained at WCH and served as WCH’s Director of Laboratories and Head of its Department of Pathology. 

As Canada entered the Second World War, the Connaught Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Toronto (UofT) became a centre of Canadian wartime innovation in the field of medical research. Scientists worked feverously to develop new drugs and treatments that would assist with Canada’s war efforts.  

Although this wonder drug was discovered in 1929 in London, England, it could only be produced in small quantities. As the war progressed, there was a growing urgency to further develop this drug as soldiers’ deaths due to wound infections grew on the battlefields. In 1942, a group of scientists from Oxford University travelled throughout North America, including Toronto, to share their preliminary research with other medical researchers in hopes of further advancing the drug.  

After one of those meetings, Dr. Philip Greey and Dr. Alice Gray with UofT’s Department of Pathology and Bacteriology began to develop a way to mass produce penicillin. Impressed by their research, the National Research Council of Canada funded the development of a pilot plant for the large-scale production of penicillin at the Banting Institute. The production methods developed by Greey, Gray, and their research team had evolved so rapidly that by August 1943 Canada’s wartime Department of Munitions and Supply asked the Connaught Labs to begin the mass production of penicillin for all Canadian armed services.  

Title: Women workers label and package vials of penicillin for shipment from the Connaught Labs
Source: Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada fonds/e000762245

To meet the demand, the Connaught Labs greatly expanded its staff and UofT purchased, renovated, and equipped the old Knox College building on Spadina Crescent for production. In less than eight months’ time, penicillin began to be mass produced in this building. According to Connaught Lab’s Wartime Work Report, “the penicillin laboratory was in operation twenty-four hours daily, and over 30,000 bottles were handled each day.” 

Throughout our 140-year history, Women’s College Hospital has seen things differently. Just like Dr. Alice Gray, we are on a mission to transform healthcare access. We know that when you focus on equity, you are creating a healthcare system that works for everyone. Learn more about how WCH sees things differently.