Queen’s medical school’s prejudicial past

A look back at Queen’s systemic expulsion of women from medical school

The medical school class of 1948, featuring two women.
The medical school class of 1948, featuring two women.
Credit: 
Illustration by Julia Balakrishnan

Although Queen’s was one of the first schools in Canada to accept women into their medical school, they were also the first to systemically expel them.

The climate on Queen’s campus was particularly inhospitable to women in the 1880s. According to a 1997 article by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), the reigning ideology in the 19th century was that women didn’t need to seek higher education and that their presence would ‘water down’ the quality of lectures.

According to the Queen’s archives, physiology professor Kenneth Fenwick tormented the female students in his class with insulting comments and offensive anecdotes.

In 1882, the women in Fenwick’s class began to fight back after the professor allegedly made a comment that likened the pitch of the female voice to those of apes. After he made this comparison, the female students marched out of the classroom and filed a formal harassment complaint.

While the women did this, Fenwick and a group of male students claimed the presence of women in lecture halls forced classes to become ‘garbled’ to suit the ‘over-refined sensibilities’ of the women in the class. Fenwick’s male group began a petition to have all women expelled in order to protect the academic freedom of the men.

Because of the national press’ favourable coverage of the women’s side, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons initially resisted the efforts of Fenwick’s student group. However, when the male students threatened to go on strike and abandon Queen’s, the Royal College officially banned women from entrance into medical school in 1883.

A separate medical school for women was founded immediately following the events of 1883 so women would be able to continue to study medicine on campus. The Women’s Medical College operated for seven years from the west wing in Kingston City Hall and then for another three years at a house on Union street. The school was ultimately forced to shut down due to lack of enrollment in 1893.

In 1942, the social climate was beginning to evolve, with universities across Canada starting to modify their admission requirements to better suit the needs of the country. At that time, 90 per cent of Canadian medical schools accepted women into their program. Queen’s, who had led the way for equality in the 1880s, lagged behind the rest of the nation.

The Dean of Women, Vibert Douglas, said many female students felt discriminated against because they couldn’t apply to medical school at Queen’s. Additionally, faculty members at the School of Medicine began to note the inevitably growing need for medical care in Canada in the coming years and that “the need for women graduates would certainly exist.”

As a result of the growing concern, the Dean of the University appointed a small committee to make a decision regarding women’s admission to medical school, in 1943.

According to the committee’s report, the reason for women’s expulsion was reported to be “disturbances between women and men students.” But attitudes like those in Professor Fenwick’s 1883 class weren’t present anymore. A survey taken from the fourth-year undergraduate class from 1943 indicated students had favourable attitudes towards the admission of women to medical school.

According to the CMAJ article, another factor that ultimately contributed to women’s readmission was the generous donation given by Agnes Craine, a graduate from the Women’s Medical College in 1888. Craine gave Queen’s $350,000 — a donation unmatched by the many male graduates from the medical school. Craine’s generosity impressed the committee, as the Craine building was the only building whose construction occurred during the Great Depression.

The line reading, “men only admitted” was finally removed from the medical school calendar in 1943.

The first female students to be admitted were Alice Bertram and Margaret Elliot, the latter of whom would go on to accept the scholarship for highest standing in her class in 1946.

In spite of the great achievements of the few women admitted each year, the discrimination they faced persisted. In a 1998 interview with Dr. Ruth Galbraith ’57 for the CMAJ, she reported there was an unwritten quota for women at the medical school. Classes had no more than six women, with many sections still entirely male.

Fast forward to today, and surveys indicate women represent 49 per cent of the medical school students admitted each year. Although Queen’s has come a long way in terms of their systemic discrimination and mistreatment of women, their history highlights an imbalance that existed between men and women for decades.

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