Skip to main content

Visiting City Hall, Kingston, Ontario: Women's Medical College Memories; Honouring Women's Medical University Education

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Provincial flag of Ontario

Provincial flag of Ontario

Between 1883 and 1890, the City Hall's West Wing housed the Women's Medical College

[This visit occurred some years ago.]

Housed from 1883 in the west wing of the 1844 Necoclassical City Hall, Kingston, Ontario (which I have elsewhere described) was the Women's Medical College (1), associated with which were various, distinguished medical personalities.

Interestingly, the hall under the City Hall's prominent dome was regularly used for medical dissection classes.

Among the funders and leading proponents of the College was Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout, who had been a physician in practice since 1875, having studied at the Toronto School of Medicine (2). Dr. Trout was a strong advocate for the role of women in the trusteeship of medical education and was widely noted for her interest in the treatment of rheumatic disorders. Dr. Trout was also noted for her wider interests in issues of Temperance: she served as President of the Women's Temperance Union; in the status of women: she was Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Women; and in Bible study and foreign missions (3).

Among noted physicians trained at the Women's Medical College was Dr. Elizabeth Smith Shortt (4), who, having herself been a student at the College and having subsequently spent some years in medical practice, returned to lecture at the College in 1887. She later became associated with numerous causes such as the fight against tuberculosis and the pasteurization of milk, mothers' allowances and many aspects of issues related to the status of women. A Woman with a Purpose
by Elizabeth Smith, with edited extracts from her personal diaries 1872-1884, was published in 1980.

Another noted individual associated with Kingston's Women's Medical College was Dr. Agnes Douglas Craine, who graduated in 1888 (5). Dr. Craine supplemented her medical training at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh, at the faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, and pursued postgraduate work in Vienna. She served for many years in medical practice in Smith's Falls, Ontario; the Smiths Falls Municipal Heritage Committee records that Dr. Craine was 'according to historians, the most highly educated woman in eastern Ontario' (6) She later gifted Queen's University $350,000 in support of the field of biochemistry; the Craine Chair in Biochemistry and the University's Craine Building are named for Dr. Agnes Douglas Craine.

From 1890 the Women's Medical College was housed at 75 Union Street.

In 1894, the Women's Medical College, Kingston, merged with the Toronto School of Medicine to become the Ontario Medical College for Women, based in Toronto (3).

Kingston's Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons expels women students...

The circumstances of the establishing of the Women's Medical College in 1883 constitute a bizarre episode in university history. Kingston's Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (7) was teaching both men and women students in the early 1880s, when a series of bizarre incidents rocked the College.

In 1882, Professor of Physiology Kenneth Fenwick, after being on record as having made a whole series of disparaging remarks about his female medical students in their hearing, and of having encouraged his male students in such attitudes, made a statement during a physiology class focusing on the larynx, which compared women with apes. Dr. Elizabeth Smith Short (see above), at that time one of the medical students, left a record, now held in University of Waterloo Archives, of the manner in which the lecturer's boorish behaviour had the effect of stirring student antagonism towards the women medical students. After having previously endured a range of unprofessional, derogatory remarks from Professor Fenwick, on the occasion of the 'apes' analogy the women medical students complained to the College authorities.

The result? After initial hesitation, the authorities responded in 1883 by expelling the women students from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. The women medical students' supposed misdemeanor? the simple fact that they were women medical students.

If one stops to compare some brief facts — contemporaneously to these events, and well into the past — about the role of women in medicine, the character of the College's actions in expelling the women medical students is starkly underlined. The European and Western university movement began in Italy in the Middle Ages, with the revival of learning after the Dark Ages when scholarly activity had generally foundered. Bologna University was founded in 1088 and in different Medieval universities women professors of medicine were well distinguished. Associated even with the first medical school in the world, the Schola Medica Salernitana, were various women who were teachers of medicine, including Trota of Salerno (12th century), who wrote extensively on medical matters; three quarters her contributions are noted as not being specific to women patients. At the University of Bologna, Dorotea Bucca (1360-1436) held the chair of medicine for 40 years; Mercuriade of Salerno (14th century) was the author of a number of medical treatises; Clarice di Dursio (15th century) was noted as an eye physician and surgeon from Foggia. (These names are of merely a few of the women who achieved distinction in medicine in the Middle Ages.)

Later, but well before the unedifying events at Kingston, there were examples of universities around the world that awarded earned medical qualifications to women who subsequently went on to practise medicine. In 1754, from the University of Halle, Prussia, Dorothea Erxleben earned her MD and was in practice, being noted for her dedication to the medical needs of poor people. In 1834, from the Medical School of Rio de Janeiro, Marie Durocher earned a medical degree and was subsequently an active medical professional for 60 years. By the 1850s, the New England Female Medical College and the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania were giving instruction in medicine to women.

More contemporaneously to the events described at Kingston, the British Medical Act 1876 confirmed that all British medical authorities were empowered to license qualified women; within the new Dominion of Canada, Dr. Maria Luisa Angwin and Dr. Jane Lambert Heartz were physicians in practice during the 1880s (in Nova Scotia); Dr. Emily Howard Stowe and Dr. Augusta Stowe Gullen were in practice in the 1880s (in Ontario), as was also Dr. Jennie Kidd Trout (see above).

The personality of Professor Kenneth Fenwick, around whom the controversies revolved, is revealed as that of a somewhat tragic figure who has gone down in history for his boorish behaviour as well as for his other achievements. Even by the standards of the time, the stark nature of his grossly uncouth personal behaviour — evidently tolerated by his employers — is underlined that it occurred during an era when students were expected to address each other as 'Mr' and 'Miss'. He is remembered for advancing the treatment of obstetrics and gynecology, the training of nurses, and for a medical amphitheatre which bears his name; he was twice widowed, and shortly after marrying his third wife he contracted blood poisoning through a cut during surgery and died at the age of 43 in 1896 (8).

...and Queen's University later proceeds to expel black medical students also...

Scroll to Continue

It might be claimed optimistically that the drastic step of expelling women medical students because they were women medical students was a momentarily aberrant lack of ability to grasp the situation being faced on the part of Kingston's Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, later reincorporated into Queen's University.

However, another bizarre event occurred during World War One: complaints were made about the presence of black medical students in local hospitals, who were thus expelled from the University also (9). The supposed misdemeanor of the black medical students in question? the simple fact that they were black medical students.

Unlike in the cases of the women who formed the student body of the Women's Medical College after their expulsion, no effort seems to have been made to prevent the expelled black medical students from dispersing.

Neither women students nor black students were readmitted to study medicine at Queens University until the 1940s.

These expulsion episodes thus contrast sharply with the historical contribution of the various, distinguished medical personalities associated with the Women's Medical College, Kingston.

April 13, 2020


(1) See also:

(2) A plaque by the Historic Monuments Board of Canada, which honours Dr. Trout is located on the second floor of Kingston City Hall.

(3) See also:

(4) See also:

(5) See also:

(6) See also:

(7) Kingston's Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons was loosely affiliated with Queen's University despite confessional disagreements with Presbyterians prominent in the leadership of Queen's (founded in 1841).

(8) See also:

(9) See also:

Some sourcing: Wikipedia

Dr.  Elizabeth Smith Shortt, ca. 1910 U.Waterloo,Special Coll.&Arch.,Elizabeth Smith Shortt fonds, WA 10 File 2308

Dr. Elizabeth Smith Shortt, ca. 1910 U.Waterloo,Special Coll.&Arch.,Elizabeth Smith Shortt fonds, WA 10 File 2308

Medieval female physician, 1400 - 1425 (From an early 15th century English manuscript, The British Library)

Medieval female physician, 1400 - 1425 (From an early 15th century English manuscript, The British Library)

Also worth seeing

In Kingston itself, other visitor attractions include: Fort Henry; Bellevue House; the Frontenac County Courthouse; Portsmouth Village; the Flora MacDonald Confederation Basin; ferry trips to Wolfe Island depart from close to the Downtown area; Kingston/Norman Rogers Airport has an historical display based on a former RCAF Harvard and a VC-winning WW2 RN aviator; and many others.


How to get there: Kingston/Norman Rogers Airport, at Kingston , Ontario is served by Air Canada, offering scheduled flights to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide flight connections, and by charter airline Brock Air Services. Car rental is available from Kingston/Norman Rogers Airport. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Other of my hubpages may also be of interest

Related Articles