National Physicians’ Day, Canada

Today, 1 May, I am going to join many of my colleagues to thank and celebrate our medical teachers, our colleagues, and our patients too, on National Physicians’ Day in Canada. 

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor, although looking back I cannot remember what motivated me so much. I think I read a story in which a young doctor was the hero. Also, several members of my extended family were doctors, kind of role models for me. My maternal grandfather graduated in medicine in Berlin in 1880 and became a pioneer orthopaedic surgeon, with rehabilitation equipment in his office in Budapest. He died quite young from septicemia, in the early 1900s, soon after my mother was born. My grandmother’s brother became an obstetrician, and both his daughters became doctors. Rather horrifyingly the three died—were killed—together in a concentration camp in 1945. A distant uncle was our “house doctor,” as most general practitioners were called in Hungary because they made so many house calls, often on bicycles. I remember that when my mother broke her arm she had to go to the private office of a roentgenologist, who had what I now recall to be rather primitive machinery. I was essentially a healthy child, but with a lot of ear infections. I well remember the ear specialist coming to our apartment and, while I was sitting in my bed, he lanced my ear drum. I also remember that when medicines were prescribed we had to go to the pharmacist and wait while the various powders were ground and mixed. There were no pills in those days. We had to put the powder on a moist, very soft, thin paper and fold it over the little heap of powder, then swallow it. Good luck! 

One of my friend’s mother was a doctor, and my memory of her takes me back to why 1 May is National Physicians’ Day in Canada. The date was selected to honor the birthday on 1 May 1831 of Canada’s first female doctor: Emily Stowe (nee Emily Howard Jennings 1831–1903). She was born in Norwich Township in Ontario and first became a teacher, then the principal of a public school in Brantford, Ontario. Married to Howard Stone at age 25 she had three children in the next 7 years, two sons and a daughter, Augasta, who later also became a physician (1857–1943). 

Emily Stowe applied to the Toronto School of Medicine at age 34 in 1865, but she was denied entrance, being a woman. The words of the vice principal are often quoted: “The doors of the University are not open to women and I trust they never will be.” She earned her medical degree at the New York Medical College for Women 2 years later, in 1867. In 1870, a short while after she opened her medical practice in Toronto, she was accepted by the Toronto School of Medicine to fulfill a requirement for medical practitioners with foreign licences. Faced with hostile attitudes at the school, she refused to take the written and oral exams but in 1880, at age 49, she was granted a licence by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. 

Today well over 60% of Canadian medical students are women, and women doctors are becoming well represented in all specialities. That alone is worthy of celebration on 1 May.
—George Szasz, CM, MD

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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