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Medical director of the first birth control clinic in Canada
Elizabeth Catherine Bagshaw, born in October 1881 on a farm on the Twelfth Concession, Mariposa Township, Victoria County, Ontario, was the youngest in a family of four daughters. She was a venturesome child with a remarkable memory which would prove very useful to her later. By the time she was ten, and attending political meetings with her Liberal father, she became a Conservative and remained one for life. At about 16 years of age, while attending Lindsay Collegiate, she decided to go to medical school. Although her mother did not want her to study medicine, her father was very supportive. Unfortunately, a year before her graduation, he fell from a ladder in the barn, breaking his neck. He died three days later.
In September 1901, Elizabeth enrolled in the Women's Medical College in Toronto. Formally known as the Ontario Medical College for Women, it had opened on October 1, 1883, specifically to train women in the medical profession. As the College did not have the power to grant degrees, she was also registered as an "occasional student" at the University of Toronto, enabling her to obtain her degree from that university. Some classes were mixed; for others, e.g., obstetrical instruction and anatomy, the women were segregated.
Summers were spent helping out on the farm. After the death of her father, she briefly tried to manage the farm during the summer of 1904, encountering more sexism from the hired men who resented taking orders from her than she had in three years of medical school. She finally fired them all, sold the farm, stock and equipment and moved her family to Toronto, where she completed her fourth year of medicine. She graduated in 1905 but could not set up her own medical practice until she passed the required examination and received her license to practise from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
At the time, there were very few hospital internships in Canada that were open to women. Although she was prepared to go to Detroit, she abandonned the idea when her mother made it clear that she did not want to be left alone. Instead, Dr. Bagshaw opted for the only alternative - preceptorship. She went to work with Dr. Emma Leila Skinner, whose practice was mostly in maternity work. She was not compensated for her year's work, as interns received no pay.
In the summer of 1906, Dr. Bagshaw went to Hamilton to substitute for Dr. Mabel Henderson while she was on vacation. She liked the city so much, she decided to move there. Obstetrics was the prime focus of her early work and the mainstay of her practice for years to come. She joined the Hamilton Medical Society and had staff privileges at both Hamilton General Hospital and St. Joseph's Hospital. She was also assigned to the skin clinic in the out-patient department of the General, treating allergies as well as dermatological cases. Though not one of her primary interests, she served there for over ten years without pay.
By her 40th birthday in 1921, her mother had passed away and the two men, Lou Honey and Jimmy Dickinson, who had provided romance in her life were both dead. Dr. Bagshaw thus began to settle into a career woman's life. The 20s proved extremely busy; for three consecutive years she signed more birth certificates than any other Hamilton physician and most of them were home deliveries.
From 1932 until 1966, Dr. Bagshaw spent Friday afternoons as the medical director of Canada's first and illegal birth control clinic. Information was given out, and pessaries, jellies and condoms were dispensed there. Early in her practice she would never have spoken of birth control, but after the Depression that was no longer the case. "There was no welfare and no unemployment payments, and these people were just about half-starved because there was no work, and for them to go on having children was a detriment to the country. They couldn't afford children if they couldn't afford to eat. So the families came to the clinic and we gave them information." She did this courageously despite opposition from medical colleagues and local clergy. She would see any woman who had need of contraception information.The clinic became legal in 1969 and has been supported by government grants.
In 1926, at the age of 45, she adopted a son via untraditional channels. Instead of going through Children's Aid, believing that as a single woman she would have been refused, she contacted her lawyer to work on the adoption papers.The seven-month-old baby, John, provided Dr. Bagshaw with a much wanted home life. He grew up, studied medicine and from 1954, the two practised in separate offices within the same building.
On April 11, 1973, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada for the more than 30 years she had devoted to the practice of medicine in the City of Hamilton. She also received many other honours: Life Member, Ontario Medical Association, 1954; Senior Member, Canadian Medical Association,1969; Hamilton's Citizen of the Year, 1970; Elizabeth Bagshaw Elementary School in Hamilton was named in her honour, 1971; a portrait was hung in the permanent museum of family planning established by Ortho Pharmaceutical (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto; LL.D. (Hon.), McMaster University, 1974; Life member, College of Family Physicians of Canada, 1976; Bagshaw Chapter, Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), named in her honour; Persons Award, 1979; and a guest lectureship was established in her name by the Hamilton Academy of Medicine, 1981.
In 1976, at the age of 95, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw decided it was time to retire, closing her practice which at that time still consisted of 50 patients. She was the oldest practising physician in Canada and a true humanitarian. The National Film Board of Canada made a movie of her life which was shown at a party marking her 99th birthday. She was 100 years old when she died on January 5, 1982.
"Dr. E. Bagshaw founded birth control clinic". Toronto star. (January 7, 1982). P. A22
"Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw. Role in birth-control clinic aroused ire in 1932". Globe and mail. (January 7, 1982). P. 20
Dunlop, Marilyn. "Pioneer MD won fight for birth control". Toronto star. (January 8, 1982). P. C4
Hellstedt, Leone McGregor. "Elizabeth Catherine Bagshaw". Women physicians of the world : autobiographies of medical pioneers. Washington : Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, c1978. P. 8-9
Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw in Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television documentary program on contraception . Man alive. September 18, 1977. Held by National Archives of Canada. Item number 216640.
National Film Board of Canada. Doctor woman : the life and times of Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw [video]. Montreal : NFB, c1978. 1 videocassette (29 min.). Also available in a 1985 NFB video compilation: Framed in time.
"Pioneer woman doctor dies at 100". Vancouver sun. (January 6, 1982). P. A11
Rooney, Frances. "Elizabeth Bagshaw, M.D., an interview". Makara. Vol. 2, no. 3 (May 1977). P. 27-30
Wild, Marjorie. Elizabeth Bagshaw. Markham, Ont. : Fitzhenry & Whiteside, c1984. 63 p. (The Canadians).