The history of Women’s College Hospital is built on the necessity of women’s medical education and care. The institution formed in 1883 when Emily Stowe, the first woman physician to practice medicine in Canada, called for a school to train women in medicine with a group at the Toronto Women’s Suffrage Club. This led to the creation of Women’s Medical College. Throughout the early 20th century, this idea expanded (growing out of previous locations and its original name) into a modern teaching hospital that prioritizes women’s health— becoming the Women’s College Hospital we know today.
A crucial part of Women’s College Hospital history is the Women’s College Hospital (WCH) School of Nursing. In 1915, Sarah Glenn was a patient at WCH. Impressed by the care of her nurses, she asked the hospital superintendent if she could train to become a nurse. At the time, WCH was operating out of a 3-storey house at 125 Rusholme Rd. During her training, Sarah learned how to assist with small medical procedures, made beds, and delivered meals. For her graduation, Sarah was presented with a handmade certificate in the backyard. With this quiet beginning, the WCH School of Nursing went on to operate for 60 years and graduated nearly 1500 women.
The history of nursing in Canada (and beyond) was largely shaped by Victorian ideals of respectability and femininity. As a predominantly female profession, nursing was constantly fighting to secure its place in the medical hierarchy. These pursuits of professionalization and respect led to improved medical education for nurses; however, it simultaneously fed discriminatory practices to exclude nursing students who were not white.
These concerns with nursing’s reputation contributed to the, often unwritten, discrimination against women of colour. Early brochures for the WCH Nursing School stated that “women of superior education and culture” were preferred. While the WCH School of Nursing was attempting to dedicate its work to women’s medical education and care, this vision excluded Black women for over 30 years.
World War II caused a period of rapid transformation for the profession of nursing as more women entered the workforce. The war caused shortages of medical interns, allowing the need for and responsibilities of nurses to rise. The government supported massive recruitment campaigns and Black women were gradually accepted into nursing programs.
Following WWII, a young Agnes Clinton who had previously been rejected from other nursing schools for being “too tall”, applied to nursing school at WCH in 1948 and was accepted the same year. She would later become the first Black woman to graduate in 1951. While Agnes broke through discriminatory barriers and became an extremely accomplished nurse, little is known about her life or experiences at WCH Nursing School.
The general absence of historical materials about Black Canadian nurses should not go unnoticed or unchallenged. As a result, we must work harder to recover information documenting their experiences. Archival sources confirm the presence of Black nursing students at WCH and in nursing schools across Canada. For example, you can spot Agnes Clinton in this 1951 photo of the traditional graduation march from WCH to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto.
Nursing school was a unique 2-3 year experience of training and living with your fellow classmates. These stories of learning and socializing help both confirm Black nurses’ presence and provide details about the nursing culture that students (including Agnes) were experiencing in the mid 20th century at WCH.
Nursing students did not pay tuition. Instead, they worked in the hospital in exchange for education and room and board. Students spend the majority of their day on duty, while still having to make time to study and attend class. Nursing students trained in all areas of WCH, including patient wards, delivery rooms, and operating rooms. Agnes enjoyed working with patients, even when they occasionally looked at her oddly. Other medical professionals and patients not wanting black hands on white bodies was a constant challenge for Black nursing students.
The Social Committee planned activities, such as dances, picnics, luncheons, and outings. Agnes was described as having a great sense of humour and a close knit group of friends. The School of Nursing was a place for women with shared aspirations to learn, work, and form bonds that lasted long past graduation.
After being awarded her diploma, school pin, and band to be worn on her nursing cap, Agnes went on to work as a public health nurse. Following 13 years of working in Toronto, she went to Yale to study alcohol addiction. Agnes then moved to Detroit, where she set up a mobile medical team for homeless people. 50 years after graduation, Agnes was working in a substance-abuse intake facility doing nursing assessments.
While Black women were excluded from nursing schools in an attempt to uphold the professions’ respectability, it is nurses like Agnes that demonstrate the dedication and courage of nurses in Toronto and Canada.
The Ontario government went on to close hospital-based nursing schools in 1973, and as a result, WCH helped form the nursing program at Ryerson University. Women’s College Hospital’s School of Nursing allowed women to claim space in the medical profession, providing teaching that was limited or unavailable elsewhere. While these opportunities were limited for marginalized women until years after WCH’s formation, Agnes Clinton reminds us of the importance of documenting their experiences of struggle, accomplishment, and friendship.
Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora
By Karen Flynn
288 Pages. University of Toronto Press, 2011.
‘They said I was too tall, too big …’ — how three nurses broke through nursing’s starched-white world.
Toronto Star, May 5, 2019.
Memories of the Women’s College Hospital School of Nursing
Virtual Museum of Canada