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Dr. Maude Abbott: Physician, educator and heart specialist

For the week of Monday, August 29, 2016

On September 2, 1940, internationally recognized heart specialist, educator and writer Dr. Maude Abbott died in Montréal. She was one of Canada’s first female physicians.

Maude Abbott
© McCord Museum

Maude Abbott was born in 1869, at St. Andrews East, Quebec. Raised with her sister by their grandmother, she went to high school in Montréal and received a scholarship to McGill University. Upon the completion of a Bachelor of Arts degree and a teaching certificate, she expressed interest in studying medicine. However, as McGill refused to accept women as medical students, Abbott studied Bishop’s College (now University) in Lennoxville, Quebec, for her medical degree. Following medical school, she continued her studies in Europe for three years, accompanied by her sister Alice. During this time, Alice began to suffer from a lifelong mental illness, and Maude became her caregiver.

In 1897, the sisters returned to Montréal and Maude opened her own medical practice. A year later, she was appointed as an assistant curator at the McGill Medical Museum. She developed the museum as a visual teaching tool and began to give popular demonstrations for the students in 1901. She also organized the International Association of Medical Museums, edited their journal, and served as secretary and treasurer for more than 30 years.

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McGill University Medical Building, ca. 1890. The Medical Museum was located in this building until it was destroyed by a fire in 1907
© McCord Museum, VIEW-1479

Abbott earned an international reputation as an expert in congenital heart disease. Although she researched heart murmurs, a male colleague presented her paper at the Medico-Chirurgical Society because women were excluded. However, because of her excellent research, she was elected as the society’s first female member and the renowned Canadian doctor, Sir William Osler, invited her to write a chapter for his medical textbook. Her writing also included histories of nursing and of medicine in Quebec as well as the Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease.

Abbott faced sexism throughout her life. Although she was awarded two honorary degrees from McGill, she was never promoted to the position of professor. Other institutions offered her more prestigious roles, notably the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia where she was the Chair of Pathology and Bacteriology from 1923-25, but she returned to Montréal to be with her sister. In response to these challenges, Abbott co-founded the Federation of Medical Women of Canada in 1924.

Maude Elizabeth Seymour Abbott died in 1940, at the age of 72. In 1994, she was designated as a National Historic Person and inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. To read more about women in medicine, see Dr. Irma LeVasseur Comes to the Aid of Children and Dr. Emily Stowe Remedies Social Ills. To learn more about William Osler, read Sir William Osler, an Exceptional Doctor in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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