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Pediatrician and co-founder of Sainte-Justine's Children's Hospital in Montreal
Who was Dr. Irma LeVasseur? Little has been written about this woman, who changed the history of medicine in Quebec. Born to a family of artists in Quebec City in 1878, her mother (Fedora Venner) was a professional singer and her father (Louis-Nazaire LeVasseur) a writer and journalist.
LeVasseur was educated in the manner of all young girls at the time. There is nothing to indicate that she was encouraged or discouraged from taking up her chosen profession, simply that when her basic studies ended, young Irma was faced with a choice, and she decided to pursue a career in medicine. At the time, no Canadian university accepted women in medicine; to continue her studies, she was forced to move to the United States.
LeVasseur studied in Minnesota for about six years, where she became a Doctor of Medicine. Returning to Quebec in 1900, she would wait three years for the right to practise her profession. In April 1903, a private bill finally granted her admittance to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Province of Quebec and the right to practise medicine. In the meantime, she worked as a doctor in the United States.
Upon returning to her native Quebec, LeVasseur was touched and saddened by the lack of care given to sick children. This prompted her to travel to Europe in order to learn more about early childhood diseases. In 1908, after her time abroad, she met Madame De Gaspé-Beaubien. Together they founded Hôpital Saint-Justine, where she applied her new knowledge of pediatrics. In 1915, she responded to a request for help from Canadian physicians and travelled to Serbia, where she devoted two years of her life, combating fatigue, bombings and disease.
Nothing could stop this pioneer of Quebec medicine: in 1918, LeVasseur worked in New York for the Red Cross; in 1922, back in Quebec, she invested her savings to help found the Hôpital de l'Enfant-Jésus; and in 1927, dissatisfied with the hospital's administration, she left and opened her own clinic for handicapped children in the faubourg of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. She also opened a school for the young disabled, which later became École Cardinal-Villeneuve.
In addition to her passion for medicine, LeVasseur was a talented painter and among the first to attend classes at the École des Beaux-Arts when it opened in 1920.
But all of this was achieved in obscurity. It was 1950 before LeVasseur's accomplishments, courage and perseverance were celebrated — by the Cercle des femmes universitaires at her golden jubilee.
Dr. Irma LeVasseur died in January 1964, without the praise and acknowledgement of the press or her peers. She spent her last days alone in poverty, a sad end for a pioneer who sacrificed everything for her province and country, as well as for children. All her life she fought for her dream: to help others and to practise the profession she loved. We undoubtedly owe women's access to Quebec medical schools and the existence of the pediatric hospitals to Dr. LeVasseur.
Hacker, Carlotta. — The indomitable lady doctors. — Toronto : Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, c1974. — 259 p. — Also available in braille
Hacker, Carlotta. — The indomitable lady doctors [braille]. — Toronto : CNIB, [197-?]. — 7 vol. of braille]
Cinq-Mars, Alonzo. — "Une Québécoise à l'honneur". — La Patrie. — (9 juillet, 1950). P. 72
"Doctor given honor for half century in job". — Montreal gazette. — (June 22, 1950). P. 4
Michaud, Francine. — "Irma LeVassseur : pionnière, femme d'action and fondatrice méconnue". — Cap-aux-Diamants. — Vol. 1, no 2 (été 1985). — P. 3-6