Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

July 30, 2014
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The queen of Canadian cardiology

Maude Abbott blazed a trail as an international specialist in cardiac conditions

Canadian doctors who know their history have a good idea who Emily Stowe was. But, while the first Canadian female doctor to practise medicine in our country may have been seeing patients as early as 1867, she wasn’t the only woman to earn a place in medical history. Maude Abbott may not be as famous as her precocious predecessor — or even as renowned as Jennie Trout, the first woman legally licensed to practice here in 1875 — but her accomplishments are no less impressive.

 

Maude Elizabeth Seymour Babin was born in the small Quebec town of St. Andrews East in 1869. Sadly, her infancy was marred by two tragic events — her father abandoned the family early on and her mother succumbed to tuberculosis when she was just seven-months old. Her maternal grandmother, Mrs. William Abbott, took her in, along with her older sister Alice, and changed their surname to her own.

Fortunately, Mrs. Abbott believed in educating her young charges. After being home-schooled, Maude attended the brand-new high school for girls in Montreal. Her quick mind served her well, and she entered McGill University in 1886 on full scholarship among the third-ever class of women admitted to the Faculty of Arts. Not only did she excel there, graduating in 1890, but she also earned the Lord Stanley Gold Medal for academic excellence and was named class valedictorian.


 

MADDENING MCGILL

Encouraged by her grandmother, Maude remained committed to the notion she’d developed early on of pursuing medical studies, even though she knew a difficult road lay ahead. Emily Stowe and Jennie Trout had paved the way for women in the sense that they were legally allowed to study and practise medicine in Canada, but it had only been a few years since admissions were being granted at a handful of schools and the going was certainly tough. Since Maude was rejected by McGill’s medical faculty, she went to Bishop’s University instead, where she was the only woman in her class. It’s somewhat surprising to note that Maude was rejected from McGill even though she came from one of the families that founded the school, and John Abbott, onetime Dean of the Faculty of Law, personally pushed for her acceptance.

Despite the discrimination she faced, Abbott fought hard to remain focussed, earning her medical degree — as well as the Chancellor’s Prize and Senior Anatomy Prize — from Bishop’s in 1894. She quickly set to work and opened her own practice in Montreal, treating mostly women and children. She worked simultaneously at the Royal Victoria Hospital, where she honed her interests in anatomy and pathology, focusing at first on cirrhosis and heart murmurs.

It was soon apparent that Abbott’s greatest strengths were focus and organization — qualities that lent themselves to her success in research. In 1898, she was hired as Assistant Curator at the Medical Museum at McGill, whose collections were in complete disarray. She developed a detailed classification system for the more than 1000 specimens and body parts. Her work was well respected; so much so, in fact, that she founded (alongside two American physicians) the International Association of Medical Museums. Eventually, the organization evolved into the International Academy of Pathology (IAP). As an homage to her contributions, the IAP’s letterhead reads, “Founded by Maude Abbott in 1906.” During these years, her interest in matters of the heart became more pronounced and Abbott began to study cardiac conditions and the workings of this still-mysterious organ.

During the late 19th century, Abbott also completed several rounds of post-graduate work in Scotland, Switzerland and Austria. Closer to home, her fans included none other than Sir William Osler himself, whom she had met in Baltimore. Osler raved to McGill’s Dean of Medicine about her, proclaiming that her efforts at the museum were the reason it had become the leading collection in the world. The great physician mentored the unlikely medical standout, suggesting she focus her research on congenital heart disease. An invitation to the Canadian Medico-Chirurgical Society, following her well-received paper on heart murmurs, cemented her acceptance by many, though certainly not all, of her male colleagues.


 

OSLER’S PROTEGEE

The year 1907 would mark somewhat of a turning point in Abbott’s career. The inclusion of a chapter she wrote on her research in congenital cardiac abnormalities in Sir William Osler’s renowned work, Systems of Modern Medicine, marked her as one of the world’s leading experts on heart disease, if not the leading expert. Slowly, but surely, the male-dominated world of medicine came to appreciate Abbott’s star status. After all, if Osler accepted her research and analyses, who could argue?

In what must have been a moment to savour, Abbott was granted an honourary medical degree from McGill University in 1910 and, despite the fact that the school had coldly rejected the bright young woman 20 years earlier, she graciously accepted it. (Somewhat amazingly, it would still be another eight years before McGill began offering spots to women in its Medical School!) Abbott went on to lecture in pathology, eventually becoming head of the department. She was made an Assistant Professor in 1925.

Like her predecessors Stowe and Trout, Abbott knew the importance of furthering women’s rights in the study and practice of medicine. In 1924, while attending the Canadian Medical Association’s Annual Meeting, she, along with five other female physicians, decided to form a group devoted to the cause. The Medical Women of Canada or, as it’s known today, the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, remains a strong force advocating the professional and personal interests of women doctors, as well as all issues related to women’s public health.


 

HEART ATLAS

Abbott continued her research full steam ahead. In 1936, she published her greatest work, The Atlas of Congenital Heart Disease — an impressive tome describing over 1000 cases. She retired that same year and died in 1940.

It would not be a stretch to say that Maude Abbott wrote the book on cardiology and heart surgery; her research remained the go-to source on the subject for decades. Her work on countless committees, her vigorous research and thriving private practice led some people to nickname her “The Beneficent Tornado.”

Indeed, the energetic Ms. Abbott was incredibly prolific. Over the course of her career, she penned 140 medical texts and papers. Incidentally, while she herself was making medical history, she was just as devoted to studying it, particularly where her beloved alma matter was concerned. Not only was she the curator of McGill’s Medical Museum — her extremely popular lectures there were, in fact, what fueled her invitation to officially join the school as a faculty member — but she also wrote A Historical Sketch of the Medical Faculty of McGill University and McGill’s Heroic Past. In addition, she explored the life of Florence Nightingale in Florence Nightingale as Seen In Her Portraits.

If the portraits of “The Lady With The Lamp” fascinated Maude Abbott, she would have been delighted when Canada Post celebrated the cardiac pioneer in the year 2000 with a portrait of her own on a postage stamp, aptly named “The Heart of The Matter.” Master muralist Diego Rivera also immortalized Abbott in his grand fresco commemorating history’s 50 greatest heart specialists on the walls of the National Institute of Cardiology in Mexico City. Abbott was the lone woman included, not to mention the only Canadian. Abbott’s best posthumous honour, however, may lie in the name of the McGill Adult Unit for Congenital Heart Disease Excellence... also known as M.A.U.D.E.

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