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​International Women’s Day: CMA recognizes over 150 years of leadership and excellence among female physicians

​March 8 is International Women's Day, and as part of CMA's 150th anniversary in 2017, we are marking this important occasion by sharing the stories of female trailblazers who had a tremendous impact on our profession. We hope these pioneers of the medical profession and women's rights will inspire you to "be bold for change."


Dr. James Miranda Stuart BarryDr. James Miranda Stuart Barry_.jpg

James is believed to have been born Margaret Ann Bulkley in 1789. She chose to live her life as a male so that she could be a military doctor and not just spend her life fighting for the right to be one.

Dr. Barry studied medicine at Edinburgh University, then joined the British army as a surgeon during the Napoleonic wars. She completed postings in Cape Town, Jamaica, Malta, Crimea, and finally Montreal. She performed one of the first successful caesarean sections.

Upon her death in 1865, her true identity was discovered and was revealed to the public and her peers.

Dr. Roberta Bondar

Dr. Roberta Bondar.jpgCanada's first female astronaut and the first neurologist to have flown in space is Dr. Roberta Bondar. After flying aboard the Discovery space shuttle during a 1992 mission, she spent more than ​a decade as NASA's head of space medicine. She is an inductee of the International Women's Forum Hall of Fame and the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, as well as an Officer of the Order of Canada and an appointee to the Order of Ontario.


Her research found new connections between astronauts recovering from floating in space and neurological illnesses such as strokes and Parkinson's disease.

Dr. Nadine CaronDr. Nadine Caron.jpg

In addition to being Canada's first female indigenous general surgeon, Dr. Nadine Caron is a builder of bridges between Western medicine and traditional healing.

Dr. Caron of the Ojibwa nation, is from Kamloops, B.C. and is the first indigenous woman to graduate with an MD from the University of British Columbia. Since graduation, she has helped build UBC into the learning centre of choice for future generations of indigenous health providers.

She is a leading educator and works as a general and endocrine surgeon at Prince George Regional Hospital. She strives to ensure equitable health care access for all Canadians through her research and advocacy — including indigenous people, marginalized populations, and northern and rural residents.

Dr. Caron earned a master of public health from Harvard University and completed an endocrine surgical oncology fellowship at the University of California. She is a 2016 recipient of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada's Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award.

Dr. Victoria ChungDr. Victoria Chung.jpg

Born in 1897, Victoria Chung grew up to be Canada's first female doctor of Chinese descent. Asian students were not allowed to enter professional schools in B.C., so she moved from her namesake birthplace to attend the University of Toronto's medical school.

Dr. Chung traveled to southern China in 1923 to work as a medical missionary at the Marion Barclay Hospital, remaining in the country through both World War II and the Korean War. It's likely she never returned to Canada because the federal government would not recognize the People's Republic of China and limited Asian immigration. She became the hospital's president, a position she held until her death from cancer in 1966. Even in her position, she continued to see patients and frequently led medical teams to travel into remote regions to treat farmers and villagers.

The city of Victoria declared December 8, 2012 as Victoria Chung Day.

Dr. Wendy Clay

After earning her medical degree in 1967 from the University of British Columbia, Dr. Wendy Clay became the first female officer cadet in the Royal Canadian Navy. And the firsts didn't stop there:

  • first female medical officer in the Canadian Armed
    Forces and first to receive a degreeDr. Wendy Clay.jpg in aviation medicine;
  • first woman to graduate from the military's basic pilot training and to qualify for Canadian military pilot's wings;
  • first woman to qualify for the Canadian Forces Parachute Demonstration Team, the SkyHawks;
  • first woman in the Canadian Armed Forces to achieve the rank of major-general; and
  • first female Surgeon General of the Canadian Armed Forces.

In 1988, she became Command Surgeon, the highest-ranking physician at Air Command Headquarters in Winnipeg. Moving to Ottawa in 1989, she served as Commandant of the National Defence Medical Centre until 1994 when she was appointed Surgeon General and promoted to major-general.

She retired in 1998 to Victoria, British Columbia.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth CrawfordDr. Mary Elizabeth Crawford.jpg

School children in the early 1900s were healthier thanks to Dr. Mary Elizabeth Crawford.

Born in 1876 in Lancashire, England, Dr. Crawford studied at the Ottawa Normal School and the University of Toronto before interning at the West Philadelphia Hospital for Women and Children. Around the turn of the century, she established a private practice in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

In 1909, she was appointed Chief Medical Inspector for the city's public schools. She was the only doctor giving medical examinations to school children. She was also responsible for introducing mental testing in schools and organizing special classes for those with mental disabilities.

Dr. Crawford was appointed president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada from 1930-31. She was made a member of the Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem for her contribution to the welfare of Winnipeg children through the promotion of first aid in schools.

Dr. Jean Flatt Davey

After graduating from the University of Toronto's medical school in 1936, Dr. Jean Flatt Dr. Jean Flatt Davey.jpgDavey became the second woman to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Women's Division and the division's first female physician. She and the other inaugural members took on the enormous task of recruiting women to form the backbone of the organization. Even though they were subject to the same laws, discipline and liabilities as RCAF men, and despite vocal advocates, the women never received the same salary.

Dr. Flatt Davey was the first female commissioned in the medical branch of any of the three armed services. She served as squadron leader from 1941-1945, forming a unit that provided medical care.

In 1943, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her service. She was appointed Chief of Medicine at Toronto's Women's College Hospital in 1950.

Dr. Mary Lee EdwardDr. Mary Lee Edward.png

When World War I broke in 1914, female physicians couldn't simply join up. It wasn't until 1917 that the Women's Army Auxiliary Force was formed.

By that time, Dr. Mary Lee Edward of Petrolia, Ontario — the first female medical graduate of the University of Toronto — had already left for New York because Canada didn't offer any opportunities for her to practise to her scope. She worked at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, where she met Dr. Caroline Finley. The pair organized the Women's Overseas Hospitals and became the first unit to go overseas.

Dr. Edward and others arrived right at the front in time for the full brunt of the great German offensive in 1918. With patients arriving by the hundred, Dr. Edward often operated for stretches of sixty hours. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre from France for her outstanding bravery and for her record of valour. Dr. Edward was formally termed lieutenant, but since women could hold no official rank, she was instead called "miss" or "mademoiselle."

Although she returned to New York after the war, her alma matter, the University of Toronto, awarded Dr. Edward a Roll of Service in honour of her service in the war. She continued practising medicine until her retirement at the age of 85.

Dr. Jessie Catherine GrayDr. Jessie Catherine Gray.jpg

Canada's "first lady of surgery" was Dr. Jessie Catherine Gray. She was also one of four leading cancer surgeons in North America. Throughout her impressive career, she achieved many firsts:

  • first woman gold medalist in medicine at the University of Toronto;
  • first woman to obtain the master of surgery degree;
  • first woman resident in surgery at the Toronto General Hospital;
  • first woman fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada;
  • first woman member of the Central Surgical Society of North America; and,
  • first woman elected to the federal government's Science Council of Canada.

In 1941, Dr. Gray was appointed as a clinical teacher of surgery in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto. She rose in the ranks as associate professor, then assistant professor of surgery. From 1945 until her retirement in 1965, Dr. Gray was surgeon in chief at Women's College Hospital.

After retiring from the hospital, Dr. Gray was appointed to the Medical Research Council of Canada. In 1973, she received a Civic Award of Merit from the former Toronto Mayor David Crombie for her career as a distinguished public servant.

Brigadier-General Hilary JaegerBrigadier-General Hilary Jaeger.jpg

Hilary Jaeger was born in England in 1959, but spent her early years in Scotland, Quebec and New Brunswick. After completing undergraduate studies in math and engineering, she received her MD from the University of Toronto in 1986.

In 1992, Dr. Jaeger was deployed as the Senior Medical Officer and Officer Commanding the National Support Element in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dr. Jaeger returned to Bosnia in command of the Forward Surgical Team. Here in Canada, she led the field ambulance units during the 1997 Manitoba flood and Ontario's ice storm in 1998. In the aftermath of 9/11, she was responsible for national planning and coordination of medical operations. She also oversaw medical support to NATO's mission in Afghanistan.

She became the first female — and so far the only — medical branch officer to teach at the Canadian Land Forces Command and Staff College in Kingston. She was promoted to her present rank and appointed Surgeon General in 2004. After 37 years of exemplary service, Dr. Jaeger retired from the Canadian Armed Forces in 2013.

Dr. Irma LeVasseur Dr. Irma LeVasseur.png

Born in Quebec in 1877, Dr. LeVasseur was the first female French-Canadian physician. She was one of many women who left Canada for the United States where she would be permitted to study medicine. She graduated from Minnesota's Saint Paul University and began practising in New York. Dr. LeVasseur returned to Quebec after the provincial assembly passed legislation allowing women to practise medicine.

Throughout her career, she continued to study and practise in France, Germany, Montreal, New York and Serbia. She helped deal with typhoid epidemics, worked in a military hospital and for the Red Cross.

Returning to Quebec City in 1922, she founded the Hôpital de l'Enfant-Jésus with other doctors, and later established the Hôpital des Enfants Malades for children with disabilities. Dr. LeVasseur also opened a school for children with disabilities. 

Dr. Helen Ryan (née Reynolds) Dr. Helen Ryan.jpg

Born in Mount Forest, Ontario in 1860, Dr. Ryan was Sudbury's first female physician and the first woman admitted to the Canadian Medical Association. She was instrumental in securing the right to vote for Canadian women.

Developing a love for natural science while growing up on a farm, Dr. Ryan was adamant about becoming a doctor. In medical school, she and her other female classmates were relegated to a separate cloakroom, waiting room and dissection room. They sat outside the classroom when lecture topics involved obstetrics. They suffered through pranks, lewd comments, crude behaviour and constant demoralization. Despite the hardships, Dr. Ryan graduated from medical college in 1885 with the highest grades among both male and female students.

Setting up practice in Toronto, Dr. Ryan specialized in the diseases of women and children — primarily because no man would seek treatment with her. After a brief practice in Mount Forest, Ontario with her brother, she married Thomas John Ryan and they moved to Sudbury.

Continuing her focus with women and children, Dr. Ryan set up practice in her own home. She also helped victims of train crashes, treated smallpox patients and operated people in remote cabins.

Dr. Ryan and her husband moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 1907. Her attempts to restart her practice were thwarted by the province's medical regulations. She continued treating patients, especially the poor, and devoted more energy to the suffrage movement until women in B.C. were giving the right to vote in 1918 and the federal law was enacted in 1918.

Dr. Jennie Smillie Robertson Dr. Jennie Smillie Robertson.jpg

Canada's first woman surgeon was Dr. Smillie. Born in 1878, she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a doctor. In 1905, after saving enough money from her $300 a year teaching job, Dr. Smillie began her studies at the Ontario Medical College for Women.

She interned in Philadelphia because, as a female, she could not secure a position in Toronto. But even in the United States, she did not have hospital surgical privileges, even after postgraduate training. Dr. Smillie performed the first major gynecological surgery in a private home.

She served as chair of gynecology for Women's College Hospital, which she helped found, from 1912 to 1942. She also helped launch the Federation of Medical Women of Canada.

At the age of 70, Dr. Smillie married her long-time friend. She first met Alex Robertson when she was 20 years old, but was planning for a career in medicine at the time and did not think she could have both marriage and a career.

Dr. Bette StephensonDr. Bette Stephenson.jpg

One of the founding members of the College of Family Physicians of Canada was Dr. Bette Stephenson. She was also the first woman to serve on the board of directors and serve as president for the CMA and the Ontario Medical Association. She helped establish the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research and is a trustee of the Ontario Innovation Trust.

Dr. Stephenson was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1975 and was the first female MPP to lead the ministries of education, college and universities, and finance. She also served as Deputy Premier.

In 1992, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and awarded the Order of Ontario in 1999. In 2009, an award was established in Dr. Stephenson's name to honour her pivotal role and lifelong commitment to Ontario's publicly funded education system. In 2013, she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Dr. Ann Augusta Stowe-Gullen Dr. Ann Augusta Stowe-Gullen.jpg

The first woman to gain a medical degree in Canada, Dr. Stowe-Gullen graduated in 1883 from Cobourg, Ontario's Victoria College — likely to the displeasure of her male classmates who did not take kindly to sharing their lecture halls with a woman.

Upon graduation, she married her classmate, John Gullen, and together they moved to New York to continue their studies in children's diseases. Dr. Stowe-Gullen returned to Toronto where she was soon appointed demonstrator of anatomy at the newly-established Women's Medical College. The institution was created largely due to the efforts of her mother, Emily Stowe.

While a practising physician, Dr. Stowe-Gullen was also active in the suffrage movement and devoted her time to furthering the education of women. She was vice-president of the Ontario Social Service Council and received the King's Medal in 1935 for her varied social work. She was a sought-after thought leader and vocal representative of her profession.

Dr. Emily Howard Stowe (née Jennings) Dr. Emily Howard Stowe.jpg

Emily Howard Jennings was born in 1831 in Norwich Township, Ontario. She was inspired to pursue a career in medicine following her husband's illness from tuberculosis. At that time, no Canadian college would accept a woman student, so she enrolled in the New York Medical College for Women. Although she was the first woman to practise medicine in Canada, Dr. Stowe practised without a Canadian licence for more than a decade.

She was first denied entrance in 1865 because of her gender, but Dr. Stowe attended the Toronto School of Medicine in 1870 to fulfill a requirement for medical practitioners with foreign licences. However, she refused to take exams and left the school after being the target of hostility from male faculty and students.

Despite these institutional issues, she ran a thriving practice on Toronto's Richmond Street. She was never reprimanded for practising without a license, but she was charged for performing an abortion in 1879. Dr. Stowe was acquitted following a lengthy and difficult trial, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario granted her a licence in 1880.

A strong proponent of women's interests, she advertised herself as a specialist in diseases of women and children. She advocated for public health reform, promoting the position that filthy and corrupt urban conditions caused disease.

Throughout her career, Dr. Stowe remained steadfastly committed to the principles of equality and pushed for women to achieve the same qualifications as men. She was an advocate of maternal rights, women's property rights, as well as their right to vote. She founded the Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association, later renamed the Canadian Suffrage Association.

In 1896, Dr. Stowe wrote: "My career has been one of much struggle characterized by the usual persecution which attends everyone who pioneers a new movement or steps out of line with established custom."

Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout (née Gowanlock) Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout.jpg

Born in 1841 in Kelso, Scotland, Jennie Kidd Gowanlock immigrated to Canada at age six. After attending the Normal School in Toronto, she became a public teacher in Stratford, Ontario.

Soon after marrying Edward Trout, nervous disorders suddenly set in, leaving her semi-invalid and barely able to move. She recovered with the help of new electrotherapy science, inspiring her to pursue her childhood dream of a career in medicine.

She completed medical school thanks to a special arrangement permitting her study and despite demeaning treatment. Dr. Trout was the first woman authorized to practise in Canada. She launched the Medical and Electro-Therapeutic Institute near her Toronto home in 1875. The site was also home to her free dispensary for the poor.

Exhausted from the demands of a busy practice and suffering from chronic illness, she retired in 1882 and set her sights on founding the Women's Medical College in Kingston. A decade later, it merged with the Women's Medical College in Toronto to form the Ontario Medical College for Women in Toronto. 

Dr. Julielynn Wong Dr. Julielynn Wong.jpg

Because of Dr. Julielynn Wong and her team, physicians around the globe can produce medical tools and equipment on the spot with a solar-powered, plug-and-play, ultra-portable 3D printing system.

Dr. Wong is a Queen's and Harvard-educated physician-scientist, innovator and educator. She was the first to 3D print medical supplies on the International Space Station. She created a global humanitarian community, Medical Makers, to teach others how to use 3D printing and other low-cost, sustainable health solutions.

The CMA and Joule were honoured to present Dr. Wong with one of the first Joule Innovation Grants.

Dr. Amelia Yeomans (née LeSueur)Dr. Amelia Yeomans.jpg

Dr. Yeomans' path to a career in medicine began after her husband's death in 1878. Dr. Augustus Yeomans was an assistant surgeon in the United States Army. Their daughter, Lillian, decided to follow in her father's footsteps after his passing and enrolled in the University of Michigan's School of Medicine. A year later, Amelia joined her.

Both Dr. Yeomans and her daughter moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba after graduation. With the city's tremendous growth in a short period of time, poverty, overcrowding, crime, poor living conditions and inadequate medical facilities were a serious strain on its public health. Both mother and daughter focused their attention on women and children's diseases, with Dr. Yeomans becoming particularly interested in the health of prisoners and sex workers.

Unlike many of her medical colleagues, she was unafraid to shed harsh light in the dark corners of life and push past social stigmas. Dr. Yeomans once brought a friend and journalist, E. Cora Hind, along as she completed her rounds in prison. The resulting coverage made it very difficult for the public to ignore the deplorable conditions and mistreatment of the homeless, of sex workers and abused women. She went on to help found the Winnipeg Humane Society, which worked for neglected children and instituted reforms for sex workers in Winnipeg as the 19th century drew to a close.

A vocal proponent of women's rights, Dr. Yeomans joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). She became president of Manitoba's WCTU and later, vice-president of the national WCTU. She fought hard for women's voting rights, recruiting many women and men to join the movement. Yeomans and E. Cora Hind formed the Equal Franchise Association in 1894, with Yeomans serving as the inaugural president. 

Forward any comments about this article to: cmanews@cma.ca.