This Week in History


Dr. Emily Stowe Remedies Social Ills

For the week of Monday November 10, 2014

On November 11, 1867, Emily Stowe advertised her medical services in a Toronto newspaper, challenging social norms when the very notion of female doctors was not accepted.

An advertisement for Dr. Stowe’s services published November 11, 1867 in Toronto’s The Globe newspaper.
© The Globe, reproduced by Library and Archives Canada

Stowe was born in 1831 in Norwich, Ontario, to a Quaker family. Quaker beliefs embrace education and gender equality, two principles which shaped Stowe’s personal values. She became a teacher at 15, but after seven years she was ready for a new challenge. She attended teacher’s college in Toronto, and was later hired as the first female school principal in Ontario!

She left her job in 1856 when she married John Stowe, and then decided to study medicine. She was inspired by the difficulties in dealing with John’s tuberculosis and a general societal need for female practitioners. Victorian morality deterred women from approaching male doctors for treatment.

Although Stowe graduated from a women’s medical college in New York, she could not receive a license to practice medicine in Canada. Only those who attended Canadian universities could be granted medical licenses, and no institutions would accept female students. So, Stowe practiced without a license, conducting house-calls and dispensing prescriptions as the first female doctor in Canada. She had already established a practice in Toronto by the time she was licensed in 1880.

In the background is the Toronto General Hospital. Dr. Stowe is on the left, while on the right is a vignette representing her work as a doctor and women’s rights activist.
© Canada Post Corporation, 1981. Reproduced with permission.

Dr. Stowe gained further renown for her social activism. She focussed her efforts on increasing women’s political rights, such as the right to vote, but also supported improving working conditions and access to medical services. She toured Ontario with lectures and petitions, and was active in various organizations including the National Council of Women.

Stowe died in 1903, but her daughter, Augusta Stowe-Gullen, saw women get the vote in 1918. Stowe-Gullen also became a respected doctor and activist, thanks to her mother’s ground-breaking efforts.

Dr. Emily Stowe is a national historic person for her achievements as a doctor and suffragist. Women’s College Hospital National Historic Site developed out of the Ontario Medical College for Women that she helped establish in 1883.

To learn more about the first women’s medical schools and female doctors in Canada, please see Women Doctors and Dr Irma LeVasseur Comes to the Aid of Children. To discover other members of the National Council of Women, read The First Women’s Institute and The “Governess General” of Canada.

Date Modified: