International Women’s Day 2017

Mar 8, 2017

Jennie Smillie Robertson (1878 - 1981)

Keeping the mischievous and obstreperous boys in orderJennie Smillie Robertson

When the Faculty of Medicine began enrolling women in 1906, Jennie Smillie Robertson was quick to line up. Born in 1878 on a farm in Huron County, Ontario, she had plenty of opportunities to cultivate determination and perseverance, surrounded by both older and younger siblings on a busy rural farm. Eyeing the annual salary of 300 dollars, 18-year-old Jennie trained as a teacher first, but after a few short years, was able to save enough money for medical school. In 1905 she was accepted at the Ontario Medical College for Women. 

The Ontario Medical College for Women was the sole option for Jennie. But in the 1904-05 session, students joined University of Toronto male medical students for the first time. This was formalized in April 1906, when the University officially opened its doors to women medical students, and the Ontario Medical College for Women closed (while still maintaining a clinic for women), officially transferring all students, including Jennie, to the Faculty of Medicine. 

Medical co-education was new for everyone, and some of the young women keenly felt the hostility that their presence evoked. Jennie was made of sterner stuff. She viewed the presence of the women students as a positive influence on the unruly young men! As she recalled years later, “The professors had been having difficulty keeping the mischievous and obstreperous boys in order, and noted that the gentlemen behaved better when ladies were present in the classes…”

After graduating in 1909, Jennie could not find one internship in Toronto. Undeterred, she went to Women’s Medical College hospital in Philadelphia and came back equipped with training, experience and confidence. Not one hospital would grant her surgical privileges. Not about to give up, Jennie’s unrelenting determination fueled her first operation in Canada, an oophorectomy, which she performed on the patient’s kitchen table while taking full advantage of the midday light. Jennie was the first female physician to do major gynecological surgery in Canada!

This brazen act emphasized the need for a hospital where women surgeons could work. Jennie and her colleagues re-established the original Ontario Medical College for Women as Women’s College Hospital on Seaton Street, where she would become chair of Gynecology from 1912 to 1942. Living to 103, her remarkable tenacity helped to pave the way for many medical women, including Geraldine Maloney, the first full-time female faculty member of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1947. And if Jennie Smillie Robertson were here today, she might remind us that her own mother, long ago on a farm in Huron County, played a significant role too, when she reportedly told 5-year-old Jennie that, yes, girls could be doctors too!

Excerpt from the forthcoming History Book on the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Toronto