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Themes - Science

Maude Abbott

Photograph of Maude Abbott




International authority on heart disease

Abandoned by her father and orphaned as an infant by her mother's death from tuberculosis, Maude Elizabeth Seymour Babin was brought up by her maternal grandmother in St. Andrews East, Quebec. At the age of 62, Mrs. William Abbott legally adopted Maude and her older sister, Alice, changing their surname to her own.

After home-schooling, Maude eagerly took her final high school year at a private seminary in Montreal. She was awarded a scholarship to attend McGill in June 1885.

In 1886 Maude was part of the third class of women students admitted to McGill's Faculty of Arts or, more accurately, to the Donalda Department for Women. Having simultaneously acquired a teaching diploma from the McGill Normal School, just as an "insurance policy," she received her Arts degree in 1890, winning the Lord Stanley Gold Medal and graduating as class valedictorian.

Maude had come to love McGill and was determined to study medicine there. Unfortunately, the school would not accept women into its medical program. In 1889 Maude publicly petitioned to have medical courses for women at McGill and helped raise money to pay for them. Despite media support and the fact that Maude came from a family that helped establish the university, the medical school held its ground.

Undaunted, in 1890 Maude entered the Faculty of Medicine at Bishop's College in Montreal and was the only woman in her class. She graduated with honours in June 1894, winning the Senior Anatomy Prize and the Chancellor's Prize.

That November Dr. Abbott opened her own office in Montreal, treating women and children. Working also at the Royal Victoria Hospital, she delved into pathology research and produced a significant paper from a statistical study on functional heart murmurs. It was read at the Montreal Medico-Chirurgical Society's general meeting by a male doctor because women were excluded from membership. The paper was well received and Maude was nominated as and elected the Society's first female member.

Dr. Abbott was appointed Assistant Curator of the Medical Museum of McGill University in the summer of 1898. The specimens there had never been organized and she learned how best to classify them by visiting some American medical museums. Her contacts formed there led later to the development of the International Association of Medical Museums, known today as the International Academy of Pathology. Its letterhead reads "Founded by Maude Abbott in 1906." The Academy established the Maude Abbott Lecture in 1958.

While in Baltimore, Dr. Abbott met Dr. William Osler, the world famous Canadian physician and medical educator. This encounter had a profound impact on her career. As his protégé and with his encouragement she made congenital heart disease her life study.

Reducing her practice, Dr. Abbott devoted most of her time to the Museum and was named Curator in 1901. Dr. Osler visited the Museum in 1904. He was so impressed that he wrote McGill's Dean of Medicine, saying that Dr. Abbott's work "was the best McGill had done to date, that she had a genius for organizing [McGill's Medical Museum] and there was no collection in North America or Britain that came close to it." (Kelen 2000) Knowing that she was intrigued with a rare three-chambered heart specimen, he invited her in 1905 to write the section on congenital cardiac disease for his textbook, Systems of modern medicine. Completed in December 1907, this work promoted Dr. Abbott as the world authority in the field of congenital heart disease. In 1936 her Atlas of congenital cardiac disease was published. Using her new classification system, it described clinical and postmortem records of 1000 cases.

Recognizing Dr. Abbott's brilliant work and her international reputation, McGill awarded her an honorary medical degree in 1910 and appointed her to its academic staff as Lecturer in Pathology. She was eventually appointed Assistant Professor in 1925.

Dr. Abbott published over 140 papers and books and delivered countless lectures. She volunteered as editor of the Canadian Medical Association journal from 1914-1918 when the editors served in World War I. She also authored studies on the history of medicine in Quebec and the McGill medical faculty. After Sir William Osler died in 1919, she dedicated a special edition of the Bulletin of pathology to him. The resulting publication, a 600-page volume with 120 contributors, took six years to complete.

In 1936 Dr. Abbott turned 65 but had no wish to retire. McGill insisted, however, and compensated by granting her an honorary doctorate. Despite receiving this second honorarium, Dr. Abbott strongly believed her status as a McGill teacher should have been recognized by the University beyond that of Assistant Professor.

Known as the "beneficent tornado", Dr. Abbott's energy was legendary in academic ventures and in community life. She was a member (or a guest member when only men were admitted) of at least 18 organizations. She also published 11 major historical works of a non-medical nature. Suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in the summer of 1940, she died on September 2 at the age of 71.

After her death, the great Mexican painter Diego Rivera paid tribute to Maude Abbott in 1943. He included her portrait in a mural of the fifty most important heart specialists in world history, which he created for the National Institute of Cardiology of Mexico City. She was the only Canadian and the only woman depicted in the mural.

"Maudie of McGill" is still very much a part of that university. Her papers reside in the Osler Library and her portrait is located in the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building. On March 10, 2000 a bronze heritage plaque commemorating Dr. Abbott's "national historic significance" was unveiled. It is to be permanently erected in the green space at the entrance of the McIntyre Medical Building.

The Federation of Medical Women established the Maude Abbott Memorial Scholarship Loan Fund in 1938. Dr. Abbott had been the first Chair of this body, then called the Medical Women of Canada, when she co-founded it in 1924. The Federation also successfully lobbied Canada Post to pay tribute to Dr. Abbott. A forty-six cent postage stamp entitled The Heart of the Matter was issued in her honour as part of the Millenium Collection on January 17, 2000. It is reproduced here courtesy of Canada Post and may also be seen in the biography by Susan Kelen cited below.

Dr. Maude Abbott was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1994.

This world-renowned medical pioneer put Montreal and Canada on the map for pathology and cardiology. Through her published writings and devoted teaching, as well as her patient and persistent personal style, Maude Abbott made invaluable contributions to medicine and to the advancement of women. Her life distinguishes her as one of Canada's greatest heroines and role models.


Abbott, Elizabeth. — All heart : notes on the life of Dr. Maude Elizabeth Seymour Abbott, M.D., pioneer woman doctor and cardiologist. — Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue [Quebec] : E.L. Abbott, 1997. — 104 p.

Abbott, Maude Elizabeth Seymour. — "Autobiographical sketch". — McGill medical journal. — Vol. 28 (1959). — P. 127-152

Bohnert, Beth. — "Abbott, Dr. Maude : scientist". — Canadian women : risktakers and changemakers. — Etobicoke, Ont. : Women Inventors Project, c1993. — P. 1-2. — Also published in French under the title: Oser au féminin : des Canadiennes pas ordinaires

Davenport, Jane. — "Assistant prof who was known world over". — The Gazette. — (March 13, 2000). — P. A 4

Ferencz, Charlotte. — "Maude E. Abbott : physician and scientist of international fame". — Canadian journal of cardiology = Journal canadien de cardiologie. — Vol. 16, no 7 (July 2000). — P. 889-892

Gagnon, Hervé ; Nadeau, Christine D. —  "La contribution de Maude Abbott au développement de la muséologie médicale (1898-1940)". — Fontanus from the collections of McGill University. — Vol. 10 (1998). — P. 71-79

Gibson, William Carleton. — "Some Canadian physicians". — Creative minds in medicine : scientific, humanistic, and cultural contributions by physicians. — Springfield, Ill. : C.C. Thomas, 1963. — P. 147-149

Gillett, Margaret. — "The heart of the matter : Maude Abbott, M.D., 1869-1940". — Ainley, Marianne Gosztonyi. — Despite the odds : essays on Canadian women and science. — Montreal : Véhicule Press, 1990. — P. 179-194

Gillett, Margaret. — We walked very warily : a history of women at McGill. — Montreal : Eden Press Women's Publications, c1981. — 476 p.

Hacker, Carlotta. — "Montreal and Maude Abbott". — The indomitable lady doctors. —  Halifax : Goodread Biographies, 1984. — P. 149 -169

Inventive women biographies [online]. — Toronto : Inventive Women Inc. c2000. — [Cited June 18, 2001]. — Also available in French. — Access :

Kelen, Susan. — "Maude Abbott : a biography". — Canadian journal of cardiology = Journal canadien de cardiologie. — Vol. 16, no 7 ( July 2000). — P. 893-898

MacDermot, H. E. — Maude Abbott : a memoir. —  Toronto : Macmillan, 1941. — 264 p.

McLeod, Carol. —  "Maude Abbott". — Legendary Canadian women. — Hantsport, N.S. : Lancelot Press, 1983. — P. 33-39

Scriver, Jessie Boyd. —  "Maude E. Abbott 1869-1940". — The clear spirit : twenty Candian women and their times. —Toronto : Published for the Canadian Federation of University Women by University of Toronto Press, 1966. — P. 142-157

Smyth, D. McCormack. — "Maude Abbott : pioneering heart research". — Humber, Charles J. — Pathfinders : Canadian tributes. — Mississauga : Heirloom Publishing, c1994. — P. 112-113. — (Canada heirloom series ; volume IV). — Also available online:

Waugh, Douglas. — Maudie of McGill : Dr. Maude Abbott and the foundations of heart surgery. — Toronto : Hannah Institute & Dundurn Press, 1992. — 142 p. — (Canadian medical lives no. 13)

Waugh, Douglas. — "Maudie : the life and times of McGill's Maude Abbott". — Modern pathology. — Vol. 5, no. 6 (1992). — P. 597-599

Children's literature:

Merritt, Susan E. — "Dr. Maude Abbott (1869-1940) : physician and scientist". — Her story II : women from Canada's past. — St. Catharines, Ont. : Vanwell Pub., 1995. —  P. 87-99

Shell, Barry. — "Abbott, Maude". — Great Canadian scientists. — Victoria : Polestar Book Publishers, c1997. — P. 125. — Also available online:

Webb, Michael. —  Maude Abbott : studying blue babies. — Mississauga, Ont. : Copp Clark Pitman, c1991. — 28 p. — (Scientists & inventors series). — Also published in French under the title: Maude Abbott : les bébés bleus