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Dr Irma LeVasseur Comes to the Aid of Children

For the week of Monday September 30, 2013

On September 30, 1903, Irma LeVasseur obtained her licence to practise from the Quebec College of Physicians, after a successful appeal to the Quebec Legislative Assembly. She became the first Francophone woman to practise medicine in Canada, where she helped to lay the foundations of modern pediatrics.

Detail of a photo of Irma LeVasseur, circa 1900
© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec / Fonds Famille Justine Lacoste Beaubien / P655.S2.SS6.D8
Born in Quebec City on January 20, 1877, Irma was only four years old when she was confronted with the hard facts of infant mortality and the lack of pediatric institutions. Her little brother died and her older brother suffered from a disability that prevented him from living a full social life. Resolved to pursue a career in medicine, Irma began her university studies at the age of 17 and obtained her degree from the medical and surgical college of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis/St. Paul in 1900.

Dr. LeVasseur began her career in New York before moving in 1903 to Montréal, where she worked at the Crèche de la Miséricorde. Shocked by the unsanitary conditions and the high rate of infant mortality in that city, she decided to specialize in pediatrics and furthered her education in Europe, where technology and knowledge were more advanced.

Upon her return to Montréal in 1907, Dr. LeVasseur founded a children’s hospital, the Refuge des petits malades, the future Hôpital Sainte-Justine. However, conflicts with the administration compelled her to leave and she briefly returned to work in New York.

L'hôpital Sainte-Justine on St. Denis Street, near Roy Street
© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec / Fonds Famille Justine Lacoste Beaubien / P655.S4.SS3.D9

The Doctor returned to Quebec in 1919 and, in the 1920s, pediatrics became a recognized medical field in Canada. In January 1923, LeVasseur opened a children’s clinic in her own home, which later became the Hôpital de l’Enfant-Jésus. Once again, disagreements with the administration drove her away from the hospital. She then opened another clinic, known as the Hôpital des Enfants-malades, which, in 1935, was renamed École Cardinal-Villeneuve, a school for disabled children.

Dr. LeVasseur’s life ended in poverty. She died in 1964, but the three pediatric institutions she founded survived her. Today, they are all leaders in their speciality.

Dr. Irma LeVasseur was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in 2008, in recognition of her exceptional contribution to improving health services for children.

To learn more about Canadian medicine, read Women Doctors and D. D. Palmer, Founder of Chiropractic in the Archives of This Week in History.

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