Jennie Smillie Robertson
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Jennie Smillie Robertson

Jennie Smillie Robertson
Smillie portrait.jpg
Born(1878-02-10)February 10, 1878
DiedFebruary 26, 1981(1981-02-26) (aged 103)
Toronto, Canada
Resting placeMount Pleasant Cemetery
EducationOntario Medical College for Women (merged into University of Toronto)
OccupationPhysician and surgeon
EmployerWomen's Medical College of Pennsylvania, Women's College Hospital
Known forFirst female surgeon in Canada
Alex Robertson
(m. 1948; died 1958)
An image of the road leading up to a large, multi-story brick building. A tree is in front.
The Women's College Hospital in Toronto that Smillie helped found as the Ontario Medical College for Women.

Jennie Smillie Robertson (February 10, 1878 – February 26, 1981), known throughout her career as Jennie Smillie, was the first Canadian female surgeon and also performed the country's first major gynecological surgery. Born to farmers, she worked as a teacher to afford tuition for medical school before enrolling at the Ontario Medical College for Women which merged into the University of Toronto medical school during her time there. Due to a lack of options in Toronto, she completed her training in the United States. In 1911, she helped re-found her alma mater as today's Women's College Hospital after no Toronto hospital would let her perform surgery. She died at age 103.

Early life and education

Jennie Smillie was born on February 10, 1878, on a farm outside of Hensall, Ontario,[1][2] to Benjamin Smillie (1839-1886) and Jane Smillie (née Buchanan; 1849-1906) as one of several children.[3] Jennie Smillie attended public schools in Hensall and later in Seaforth.[4] She showed interest in medical science at an early age. As an adult, she told another female doctor and friend, "I was only 3 when I first thought about being a doctor. I heard of a woman missionary doctor. When I was 5 I asked my mother if women could be doctors. She told me they could and from then on I knew that is what I would do."[3]

Smillie was initially educated as a teacher and worked until age 25[4] to save for tuition for the Ontario Medical College for Women.[5] Before her second year of medical school in 1906, the college merged with the University of Toronto's medical school, making the school coeducational; some women felt hostility from their male peers, though Smillie felt the women positively influenced the men.[5] She graduated in 1909.[6]


Medical internships in Canada were difficult for women to obtain;[4] no hospital in Toronto would take Smillie as a resident intern, forcing her to move to the United States to complete an internship at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in the city of Philadelphia.[5][7] In 1910, she returned to Toronto to begin her practice but was not accepted by any doctor for surgical training. Thus, she went back to Philadelphia for six months of intensive training under another female surgeon, which included a week where she oversaw a surgical ward, an experience which she credited with building her confidence.[3]

After Smillie's second return to Toronto, no hospital would allow her to perform surgery. Instead, she performed her first surgery (an oophorectomy to remove an ovarian tumor)[3] using daylight on a patient's kitchen table,[4][5] which made her the first surgeon to perform major gynecological surgery in Canada. As a result, she became the country's first female surgeon recorded in the field's modern era.[5]

In 1911,[7] Smillie and her female colleagues re-established the Ontario Medical College for Women as the Women's College Hospital due to an increase of female patients wanting their services[3] and a growing number of female physicians in Canada.[4] Prior to a building being built, the hospital was located inside rented houses,[3] and its early financial difficulties led the founders to gather vegetables from farmers' wives to feed their patients.[7] At the Women's College Hospital, she was chairman of the Gynecology Department from 1912 to 1942[5] and mainly performed abdominal and gynecological surgeries until her retirement in 1948.[3][7]

Outside of the hospital, Smillie was a founding member of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada[6][8] and was politically active in liberal causes, at one point serving as president of the Women's Liberal Association.[4]

Later years and legacy

After her retirement, Smillie married widower Alex Robertson when she was 70, though they had met decades prior, explaining the delay with: "I first met [him] in 1898 while I was teaching. At that time I was planning for medicine, not marriage, and I didn't think I could have both."[4][6] He died ten years later.[3] On her hundredth birthday she said there was not a day in her life she did not want to be a doctor.[9] Smillie Robertson died in a nursing home in Toronto on February 26, 1981, at the age of 103 and is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.[10][2]

In 2013, Hensall dedicated and named a pocket park in her honour.[1]

In 2016, Smillie Robertson was one of the nominees to be the first woman to have her likeness appear on a Canadian banknote.[11] However, early civil rights activist Viola Desmond was chosen to be the first woman--and black person--to be honoured in this way.[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b Nixon, Scott (July 17, 2013). "Parkette to honour Canada's first female surgeon". Archived from the original on August 22, 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  2. ^ a b Filey, Mike. "Jennie Smillie Robertson". Mount Pleasant Group. Archived from the original on August 22, 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "Dr. Jennie Smillie Robertson Woman Surgeon Was First to Enter Practice in Canada". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. March 3, 1981. p. 11. ISSN 0319-0714 – via Proquest.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Ogilvie, Marilyn; Harvey, Joy (December 16, 2003). The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century. 2003: Routledge. p. 1109. ISBN 9781135963439.CS1 maint: location (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e f "International Women's Day 2017". Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. April 8, 2017. Archived from the original on August 22, 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  6. ^ a b c Wirtzfeld, Debrah A. (August 2009). "The history of women in surgery". Canadian Journal of Surgery. 52 (4): 317-320. ISSN 0008-428X. PMC 2724816. PMID 19680519.
  7. ^ a b c d Youngberg, Gail; Holmlund, Mona (2003). Inspiring Women: A Celebration of Herstory. Regina, Saskatchewan: Coteau Books. p. 143. ISBN 9781550502046.
  8. ^ Brearton, Steve (Spring 2018). "Builders & Pioneers | Business Leaders and Pioneers Who Went to U of T". University of Toronto Magazine. Archived from the original on August 22, 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  9. ^ Greenaway, Norma (February 10, 1978). "Centenarian reached her goal". The Leader-Post. p. 29. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved 2019.
  10. ^ "The distaff side of 1981... Canada: Strides, strife". Windsor Star. December 31, 1981. p. 52. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved 2019.
  11. ^ "A Brief History of Hensall". Archived from the original on August 27, 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  12. ^ Kassam, Ashifa (March 9, 2018). "Civil Rights Pioneer Viola Desmond is First Canadian Woman on Currency". The Guardian. Archived from the original on February 22, 2019. Retrieved 2018.

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