Editor’s note: This column is based on the theme of the Surgical History Group Panel Session on Women Pioneers in Surgery, which took place at Clinical Congress 2019 in San Francisco, CA.
Jennie Smillie Robertson, MD, was one of the first women to practice surgery in Ontario province, Canada. Dr. Smillie Robertson decided when she was five years old that she would like to be a physician. She had seen a woman physician who was planning to go to India as a missionary. When the young Jennie asked whether she could become a physician, her mother said, “Yes,” and that started her interest in medicine.
To understand Dr. Smillie Robertson’s path to becoming a surgeon, it is helpful to know a little about her personal background. She was born in 1878 on a farm in Tuckersmith Township, Huron, ON. Her family, which included seven children, were pioneers. Her father was a farmer who died when Dr. Smillie Robertson was six years old. Her oldest brother took over the farm and acted as a father to the younger children. Despite her parents having only public schooling, they were supportive of their children having secondary education. One of her sisters became a public school teacher, and the other was a nurse who worked on a hospital ship in India during World War I. One of Dr. Smillie Robertson’s brothers was a physician, and another was a missionary.
Her journey begins
Dr. Smillie Robertson made the final decision to study medicine at age 15. However, she could not start medical school until she was 25 years old because she had to earn money to pay for her education. She eventually received her teaching certificate when she was 18 years old. She taught school until she was 25 years old, earning $300 a year until she accumulated enough money to apply for medical school.
The University of Toronto Medical School, ON, opened in 1840. Initially, the school only accepted men. The Women’s College Medical School was established in 1883 to accommodate women who wanted to become physicians, so Dr. Smillie Robertson and two other women enrolled. However, the school closed after their first year, and the three women transferred to the University of Toronto Medical School for the rest of their training. The reason for closing the Women’s College Medical School and having the women join the men at the University of Toronto was reportedly because the professors at the University of Toronto Medical School had difficulty keeping “the mischievous and obstreperous boys” under control, and the professors noted that the young men behaved better in the presence of women. The female and male students had all classes together except for anatomy and dissection. By all accounts, the women were happy to take classes with the men and were pleased to have been admitted to the University of Toronto.
When Dr. Smillie Robertson returned to Toronto, she again had difficulty finding a hospital where she could practice. Thus, her first operation as an independent practice surgeon was done on a kitchen table in a house.
Dr. Smillie Robertson graduated from medical school in 1909. At that time, Toronto hospitals offered few internships to women. Dr. Smillie Robertson knew that the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, PA, was built for women physicians, so she did a one-year internship at the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which is connected to the Women’s Medical College.
After returning to Toronto, Dr. Smillie Robertson started a solo practice in 1910. She realized that few women were practicing medicine in Toronto, and none were surgeons. She tried to coax some of her colleagues into specializing in surgery, but no one was willing to spend the time and money to do so.
As the lone woman physician in Toronto who aspired to perform surgery, Dr. Smillie Robertson had difficulty finding a place where she could practice. She knew the chief of surgery in Philadelphia, so she contacted her to see if she could get some surgical training. She was accepted into the program, and at the end of six months Dr. Smillie Robertson was able to perform some operations independently, which boosted her self-confidence.
When Dr. Smillie Robertson returned to Toronto, she again had difficulty finding a hospital where she could practice. Thus, her first operation as an independent practice surgeon was done on a kitchen table in a house. Several women physicians and two older male physicians who were encouraging women to pursue surgery watched her perform the procedure, which was related to a “diseased ovary.”
As time went on, more women became specialists in various fields and felt they should have a hospital where women could work. Initially, they rented a house where they cared for patients, and later moved to a bigger home. Finally, the Women’s College Hospital was built with generous financial help from friends.
Dr. Smillie Robertson was associated with the Women’s College Hospital for most of the 40 years that she was a practicing physician. Dr. Smillie Robertson’s practice was mainly gynecological surgery, but she also did some maternity work and abdominal operations, such as appendectomies. She held the position of associate chief of gynecology from 1912 to 1942.
Shortly after starting her practice in Toronto, Dr. Smillie Robertson realized the importance of government-funded health care. She became a member of the Women’s Liberal Association and was a charter member of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada.
Dr. Smillie Robertson continued practicing until 1948 when she was 70 years old. She then married her childhood sweetheart, Alex Robertson, and they had 10 wonderful years together. Dr. Smillie Robertson died in 1981 at 103 years old.
Dr. J. Robertson, pioneer surgeon. Toronto Star. March 3, 1981.
Dr. Jennie Smillie Robertson biographical file, Strategic Communication fonds, D8, The Miss Margaret Robins Archives of Women’s College Hospital. Toronto, ON. Available at: www.womenscollegehospital.ca/about-wch/wch-history/the-miss-margaret-robins-archives. Accessed December 12, 2019.
Wirtzfeld DA. The history of women in surgery. Can J Surg. 2009;52(4):317-320.