Canada 2017

Canada's first licensed female doctor had to swallow many bitter pills

The story of Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout shows why it's seldom pleasant to be a pioneer.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout, a first generation Canadian, became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada. (National Research Council of Canada)

Welcome time travellers! Inspired by the missing journal pages in Murdoch Mysteries: Beyond Time, we're exploring what Canada might have been like without a few extraordinary citizens.

In 1875, Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout placed an unprecedented ad in The Globe.

It listed the hours and address of her medical facility on Toronto's Jarvis Street. It advertised treatment by galvanic baths or electricity. And it casually stated that she was a member of Ontario's College of Physicians and Surgeons.

What the ad neglected to mention was that Dr. Trout was the first Canadian woman licensed to practice medicine in Canada.

Her accomplishment was a critical crack in the dam that kept women from applying their talents to medicine, and Canada has benefited immensely from her and the flood of women who followed her.

A tale of two pioneers

The Kidd family immigrated from Scotland when she was six years old, and she showed early promise in school.

She became a teacher in Stratford, where she married Edward Trout. Nervous disorders kept her in the house for several years, until a friend encouraged her to seek treatment with electrotherapeutics. This seems to be when she developed an interest in medicine.

Jennie Kidd Trout made history when she passed an in-person licensing exam led by all all-male panel. (National Research Council of Canada)

To understand the next chapter of Dr. Trout's story, you'd also have to flip through The Globe ads for another name: "Emily Stowe, MD, female physician."

Anyone familiar with the alternating friendship and rivalry between American founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr will see parallels in the confrontational Dr. Emily Stowe and the more quietly pragmatic Dr. Trout.

Dr. Stowe was ten years older, and operated a medical practice without a license. Since no medical college in Canada would admit female students, she received her medical degree in the United States. She was a formidable woman, with a Quaker upbringing that shaped her belief that it was sometimes necessary to break men's laws as long as one obeyed God's laws.

Biographer Carlotta Hacker speculates that Dr. Stowe refused to submit to Ontario's in-person licensing exam because she expected to be rejected by a hostile panel of men.

In 1869, the Trouts moved in with the Stowe family at their Church Street home in Toronto. Together the two women fought for a place in a medical course at the Toronto School of Medicine. One of Trout's protégées, Elizabeth Smith-Shortt, said they endured male classmates scrawling "obnoxious sketches" on walls, and even taunting from professors.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

After that, Dr. Trout headed down to the United States to get her degree. But unlike Dr. Stowe, she submitted to taking the Ontario licensing exam after she graduated. She made history when she passed with distinction, but this seems to have been the end of their friendship.

The women's shared pursuits came to a head again in 1883.

Through a series of dramatic and unexpected events, Dr. Trout helped found a women's medical college at Queen's University, while Dr. Stowe helped found one at University of Toronto. The two programs competed for students for years until they finally merged, then folded into the University of Toronto medical program in 1906.

Slowing the brain drain

These pioneers helped slow the brain drain to the United States. Before they carved out a place for women to study and practice medicine in Canada, brilliant minds were moving to the United States to seek opportunities there.

Dr. Sophia Jones, for example, was also rejected from the University of Toronto's medical program. After that, she went on to study in Michigan and became the first black faculty member at Georgia's Spelman College.

Today, 40 per cent of Canada's physicians are female, according to the Canadian Medical Association. As time goes on, women are making up an even greater piece of the pie. The Association of Faculties of Medicine in Canada notes that in 2016, 57 per cent of the medical degrees awarded in Canada went to women. 

But Canada still has a long way to go in creating spaces for women to reach their full potential in the field. The first female dean of medicine in Canada — Dalhouse University's Noni MacDonald — was only appointed in 1999.

And as Elizabeth Smith-Shortt said in those early days for women in medicine, "It is seldom pleasant to be a pioneer."

But Canadians have both better career prospects and health care today because women like Dr. Trout broke down these gender barriers.


Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is the Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton and News Coordinator at CJSR 88.5 FM. He also produces a monthly history podcast called Let's Find Out where he asks Edmontonians for questions about local history, and then they find out the answers together.


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