Dr. Emily Stowe (May 1 1831, - April 30, 1903)
Dr Emily Stowe was a remarkable woman whose journey is a testament to resilience and determination. She was Canada’s first openly practising female physician, in a time where women were “not allowed” to be doctors. Dr. Emily Stowe practiced exclusively homeopathic medicine and had a very busy practice. She was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame on April 12, 2018. She was also a teacher, Ontario’s first female school principal, a leader of the Canadian Suffrage Movement and she established the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Her career and life accomplishments are an inspiration for a women of her time.
Dr. Emily Stowe's Early Life
Dr Emily Howard Jennings Stowe was born in Norwich Ontario on May 1, 1831, the eldest to Hannah Lossing Howard and Solomon Jennings. Her family were Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) and her parents were leaders in the political and spiritual leadership of their Quaker community. Quakers strongly believed that women were to have equal partnership in matters of the church and their community, as well as in the home. Seven children were born to Hannah and Solomon Jennings, however their only son, John Milton Jennings died at 5 months old. This was a huge loss for the family, however because they were Quakers they placed a great value on daughters and the girls helped out with the heavier tasks on the land, as well as the work in the home. Hannah Howard Jennings was a well-educated woman and she did not approve of any of the schools in the area so she homeschooled her children. The Quakers, were ahead of their time and believed in equality and the education of women and so Emily’s family encouraged their daughters to pursue formal education. Her mother had a vast knowledge of herbal remedies and Emily and her sisters learned about this healing method. Emily grew up in a time where women were healers and women supported each other by attending each other’s births, so it only seemed natural to Emily that women would make good doctors (1).
Emily Stowe, First Female School Principal
In 1846, the schoolhouse in Summerville lacked a teacher, and Dr Ephraim Cook who was the superintendent of the school, chose 15 year old Emily as the best qualified person for the job. Summerville was a hamlet, now known to be along the area of Highway 59, Otterville close to Arthur’s Corners. This one room schoolhouse was about 2 miles from the Jennings home in South Norwich. Emily, happily took the job and she spent her evenings preparing lessons for all different grade levels, and doing all the marking, which was not an easy job, but she did it well. She taught for 7 years but not at Summerville the entire time. Records show she worked at School Section One in 1848 and in 1849 and 1850 showed that she was teaching in Burgessville. By the age of 22, she had saved money and wanted to pursue formal education. She applied to Victoria College in Cobourg, but was refused because she was female. One place where they were accepting females was for teaching preparation. Women teachers were becoming popular because they were paid less than men. Emily was accepted into the teacher training course at the Normal School for Upper Canada in Toronto and graduated in May 1854 with First Class Honours. Her records impressed the chairman of the Brantford School Board so much, that she was hired as the principle of Brantford Public School (known as Central Public School Brantford today). This was an extraordinary position to hold as a female of this time; this officially made her Ontario’s first female principal (1). She was principal there until 1856, until she was married which was customarily when women of that time would resign from their jobs (1,6).
Emily Stowe, First Female Medical Doctor, Homeopath
She married John Stowe on November 22, 1856 and they lived in Mount Pleasant, Ontario. John Stowe ran The Carriage Shop, along with his younger brother. They had a daughter, Ann Augusta born July 27, 1857 and two sons, named John Howard born February 10, 1861 and Frank Jennings born August 24, 1863. Around the time of Frank’s birth, Emily’s husband, John became ill with pulmonary tuberculosis. Emily’s mother, Hannah Jennings, was well known for the healing herbs and roots she prepared and she passed this knowledge to Emily. By this time, both women also leaned towards homeopathic medicine. Their family friend, Joseph Lancaster, a Norwich native and a fellow Quaker, had become the first homeopathic practitioner in Ontario. See more on my blog History of Homeopathy in Ontario. Emily Stowe’s knowledge of healing herbs and roots as well as knowledge of homeopathic medicine is likely what saved her husband. John went to a sanatorium to recover, it is not known where, but this was in a time where it was commonplace for doctors to care for patients in their own homes. With her husband recovering, Emily Stowe, was faced with the necessity of supporting the family. She took on a teaching position at the private school Nelles Academy, in Mount Pleasant (same site of the Mount Pleasant Public School today). John’s illness inspired Emily to go to medical school. It is believed that in the year 1865, she applied to The Toronto School of Medicine, which was affiliated with the University of Toronto, and she was outraged when her application was rejected because she was female. The vice-president of the University of Toronto, John McCaul said, “The doors of the University are not open to women, and I trust they never will be.” Challenged, Emily Stowe said, “Then I will make it the business of my life is to see that they will be opened, that women may have the same opportunities as men”(1). This rejection did not stop Emily Stowe from pursuing a medical education. She went to New York, where she was accepted into the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women, Homeopathic. Her sister, Cornelia Lossing, moved into the Mount Pleasant home to help look after her children during this time. In 1867 she graduated and received her degree in homeopathic medicine. She returned home that summer, but was not yet ready to set up her practice. She decided to spend a few months learning from Dr. Joseph Lancaster who was then a practicing homeopathic physician in London, Ontario. Emily sought to register with the Homeopathic Board in Ontario as there were three separate medical boards at that time, Homeopathic, Regular Physicians and Eclectics. Toward the end of the year in 1867, Emily moved to Toronto and opened up her medical practice on Richmond Street. But when she went to obtain a licence to practice, she was caught between the new Ontario Medical Act that was before the Ontario Legislature which was to merge all the medical boards under one council, as The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO). In 1869, when the CPSO was formed, a policy was set in place that all physicians educated in the United States had to attend one full course of lectures at a recognized Canadian medical school in order to obtain a licence to practice under the College of Physicians and Surgeons. However, none of the Canadian medical schools accepted women, so Emily Stowe was not able to register as a physician. She continued to practice without a licence. She specialized in treating diseases of women and children and treated according to homeopathic principles. There are some records to suggest that she paid a fine regularly for practicing as an unlicensed physician. Her practice grew quickly as she gained a great reputation among women and children. Not even a year after she started her practice she had to move to a larger house at 135 Church St Toronto. A couple named Edward and Jenny Trout rented part of the house at 135 Church St and Emily Stowe and Jenny Trout quickly became friends. Jenny had grown up on a farm by Stratford, and had been a teacher as well and became interested to study medicine. Together, they made frequent applications to the Toronto School of Medicine to be able to take a course. Finally, in 1870, they were admitted to attend classes for the 1870-1871 session. They became the first two females to ever attend classes at the Toronto School of Medicine. Being the only females in a male dominated school was not easy for them. Male chauvinism was evident in various forms and Emily and her classmate Jenny Trout had to put up with teasing, rude remarks, and even sketches on the wall. After enduring her time and completing the class, Emily was now one step closer to obtaining her licence. She still had to present herself before the council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario but decided that she was not going to subject herself to any more scrutiny. She believed that she had rocked the boat too much amongst men in the profession and that the board would not pass her. She also saw that there were only 5 homeopathic representatives on the board which was outnumbered by the number of regular physicians and might overrule. She was also so angry over the way she had been treated as a female that she decided to remain without a licence until the CPSO was prepared to beg her to accept one (1).
By 1873, Emily’s husband John had recovered and had begun an apprenticeship with a dentist for two years. John received his licence with the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario in 1875. When John began his dentistry practice at 135 Church St, they quickly outgrew their location and moved to 111 Church St (1).
Meanwhile, Jenny Trout, who had also had enough of the Toronto medical establishment, went on to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia to complete her medical studies. Jenny returned to Toronto in 1875 and since she had already taken a class at the Toronto School of Medicine, she went for the examination with the Council of the CPSO and passed and was registered May 13, 1875. Emily Stowe was the first female doctor to practice in Canada, but Jenny Trout was the first to be licensed (1).
Dr Emily Stowe practiced without a licence for 13 years, ignoring the law. On July 16th 1880 she was awarded a medical license by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. Her Medical Register reads, “In practice prior to the 1st of January 1850. MD New York College for Women 1867” (1). It is believed that since a section of the Ontario Medical Act, 1869 grandfathered physicians who had been practising before 1850, that Emily Stowe was licensed based on her experience with homeopathic physician Dr. Joseph Lancaster. Emily Stowe, while a young teacher, apprenticed with Dr Joseph Lancaster in his homeopathic practice which would have been between the years 1846 and 1853 (3).
Emily Stowe Founded The Women's College Hospital, Toronto
Emily Stowe, was very politically active and held her word that she would make it her life’s work to one day have the doors open to women pursuing higher education. She helped create the Toronto Women’s Literary Club (TWLC) in 1876, which started out to promote intellectual development and higher education for women. In 1883, the TWLC became known as the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association and Emily Stowe was the vice-president. In 1883, is also when Emily Stowe’s daughter Augusta Stowe, graduated from the University of Toronto’s medical school and became the first female to graduate from a Canadian Medical School. Stowe had worked hard to pressure the University of Toronto to change their policies to accept female students, but even after Augusta Stowe’s graduation, they were still denying women entry into medical school (6). Dr. Michael Barrett, one of Emily Stowe’s professors, decided that he would help Emily pursue her dream to open doors to higher education for women. In 1883 a meeting was held under the patronage of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association and the project was so well received that the same year, the Woman’s Medical College, was opened on October 1st, 1883, with Dr. Barrett as its first Dean (5,7). Recognizing the importance of women and children diseases, they added special classes in gynaecology and diseases of children. In 1891, they began a midwifery service. The Woman’s Medical College became known as the Ontario Medical College for Women in 1894. In 1898, three female graduates of the school established an outpatient clinic called The Dispensary. This was a clinic run by female doctors and medical students for female patients. Emily Stowe passed away in 1903. The Ontario Medical College for Women closed in the Spring of 1906 because the University of Toronto had started accepting female students in 1905 (5). The Dispensary inspired the creation of a hospital run by women for women and in 1913 the Dispensary became the Women’s College Hospital and Dispensary. The original hospital had 7 beds but grew to what it is today, a prominent teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto, known as the Women’s College Hospital (4).
Dr. Stowe's Fight for Women Rights
In 1884, Emily Stowe helped get the Married Women’s Property Act passed in Ontario, which gave spouses equal rights in regards to property they owned separately (2). In 1889, Emily Stowe took her fight for women’s rights to a national level and was principal founder of a Canada-wide organization devoted to women’s suffrage called the Dominion Women’s Enfranchisement Association (DWEA). She was the first president and in her position, Stowe used various strategies to influence political change with lobbying, petitions, rallies, speeches and newspaper editorials. Dr. Stowe fought for women’s right to vote. Despite her years of efforts, Canadian women did not earn the right to vote until 1917 which was twelve years after her death (6).
Emily Stowe Legacy
Emily Stowe went beyond that of the typical Canadian Suffragist with her boldness in practicing medicine without a license, and her fight in the Canadian Suffragist movement with use of petitions, lobbying, newspaper letters and editorials. She spent her life fighting what she believed in, importance of education for women, equal participation in society and the value of mothers. She became a public figure of her time and was not always liked because her work was viewed as civil disobedience and public outcry (2). However, Emily Stowe remained undeterred by her haters. She said, “My career has been one of much struggle characterized by the usual persecution which attends everyone who pioneers a new movement or steps out of line with established custom”(1). She was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame on April 12, 2018 and there are two public schools named after her which are, Emily Stowe Public School in Norwich, Ontario and Dr. Emily Stowe Public School in Courtice, Ontario. As well, a plaque in her honour can be found at the Norwich Archives.
- Beacock Fryer, Mary. T.P. Morley Series Editor. Emily Stowe Doctor and Suffragist. Hannah Institute and Dundurn Press. Toronto and Oxford. 1990.
- Canadian History Tidbits. Spotlight: Dr. Emily Stowe. April 14, 2015. Retrieved from: https://cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/dr-emily-stowe/ Oct 03,2023.
- Feldberg, Gina. Jennings, Emily Howard (Stowe). Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol 13. University of Toronto, 1994. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/jennings_emily_howard_13E.html
- New York Medical College. Emily Howard Jennings Stowe, MD, 1867 (1831 – 1903). Retrieved from: https://www.nymc.edu/about-nymc/history/college-for-women/emily-howard-jennings-stowe/ Oct 03,2023
- Oxford County Library. Emily Stowe. Retrieved from: pdf (ocl.net) Oct 03,2023
- Raymond, Katrine. Emily Stowe. The Canadian Encyclopedia. April 1, 2008. Retrieved from: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/emily-stowe. Oct 03, 2023
- Women’s College Hospital. 140th Anniversary of Women’s Medical College. 140th Anniversary of Woman’s Medical College | Women’s College Hospital (womenscollegehospital.ca) Retrieved Oct 03,2023