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Agnes Clinton and the Women’s College Hospital School of Nursing

How nursing students at Women’s College Hospital broke down barriers and paved the way for the future of Toronto nursing.
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Source: City of Toronto Archives

Inclusion at the Core of Women’s College Hospital

The history of Women’s College Hospital was founded for the necessity of women’s medical care and education. The institution formed in 1883 when Dr. Emily Stowe, the first woman physician to practice medicine in Canada, called for a school to train women in medicine. With the backing of Toronto Women’s Suffrage Club, Stowe’s call led to the creation of Women’s Medical College. Throughout the early 20th century, this institution expanded geographically and logistically into a modern teaching hospital that prioritizes women’s health — becoming the Women’s College Hospital (WCH) we know today.

A crucial part of Women’s College Hospital history is the WCH School of Nursing. At the time that the School of Nursing saw its first student, WCH was operating out of a 3-storey house at 125 Rusholme Rd. The first student’s graduation included a handmade certificate and a brief ceremony in the backyard of the home. With this quiet beginning, the WCH School of Nursing went on to operate for 60 years and graduated nearly 1500 women.

Miss Agnes Templeton and Miss Kathleen Grattan
Graduating Class 1918.
Credit: The Miss Margaret Robins Archives of Women’s College Hospital
Photograph collection, L-03188.
The Fight for Inclusion Wasn’t Inclusive to All

Historically, nursing in Canada (and beyond) was largely shaped by Victorian ideals of respectability and femininity. As a predominantly feminized profession, nursing was constantly fighting to secure its place in the medical hierarchy. These pursuits of professionalization and respect led to improved medical education for nurses; however, it simultaneously fed discriminatory practices to exclude nursing students who were not white.

These concerns with nursing’s reputation contributed to the, often unwritten, discrimination against women of colour. Early brochures for the WCH School of Nursing stated that “women of superior education and culture” were preferred. While the WCH School of Nursing was attempting to dedicate its work to women’s medical education and care, this vision excluded Black women for over 30 years.

World War II caused a period of rapid transformation for the profession of nursing as more women entered the workforce. The war caused shortages of medical interns, allowing the need for and responsibilities of nurses to rise. The government supported massive recruitment campaigns and Black women were gradually accepted into nursing programs.


Agnes Clinton’s Early Years at WCH School of Nursing

Following WWII, a young Agnes Clinton who had previously been rejected from other nursing schools for being “too tall,” applied to nursing school at WCH in 1948 and was accepted the same year. She would later become the first Black woman to graduate in 1951. While Agnes broke through discriminatory barriers and became an extremely accomplished nurse, little is known about her life or experiences at WCH Nursing School.

The general absence of historical materials about Black Canadian nurses should not go unnoticed or unchallenged. As a result, we must work harder to recover information documenting their experiences. Archival sources confirm the presence of Black nursing students at WCH and in nursing schools across Canada. For example, you can spot Agnes Clinton in this 1951 photo of the traditional graduation march from WCH to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto.

Credit: The Miss Margaret Robins Archives of Women’s College Hospital Photograph collection

Nursing school was a unique 2-3 year experience of training and living with your fellow classmates. These stories of learning and socializing help both confirm Black nurses’ presence and provide details about the nursing culture that students (including Agnes) were experiencing in the mid 20th century at WCH.

Nursing students did not pay tuition. Instead, they worked in the hospital in exchange for education and room and board. Students spend the majority of their day on duty, while still having to make time to study and attend class. Nursing students trained in all areas of WCH, including patient wards, delivery rooms, and operating rooms. Agnes enjoyed working with patients. Other medical professionals and patients who sought out segregation in healthcare were a constant challenge for Black nursing students.

Anges Clinton’s Career and Impact

Agnes was described as having a great sense of humour and a close-knit group of friends. The School of Nursing was a place for women with shared aspirations to learn, work, and form bonds that lasted long past graduation.

The Miss Margaret Robins Archives of Women’s College Hospital

After being awarded her diploma, school pin, and band to be worn on her nursing cap, Agnes went on to work as a public health nurse. Following 13 years of working in Toronto, she went to Yale to study alcohol addiction. Agnes then moved to Detroit, where she set up a mobile medical team for homeless people. 50 years after graduation, Agnes was working in a substance-abuse intake facility doing nursing assessments.

While Black women were excluded from nursing schools in an attempt to uphold the professions’ respectability, it is nurses like Agnes that demonstrate the dedication and courage of nurses in Toronto and Canada.

The Ontario government went on to close hospital-based nursing schools in 1973, and as a result, WCH helped form the nursing program at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University). Women’s College Hospital’s School of Nursing allowed women to claim space in the medical profession, providing teaching that was limited or unavailable elsewhere. While these opportunities were limited for marginalized women until years after WCH’s formation, Agnes Clinton reminds us of the importance of documenting their experiences of struggle, accomplishment, and friendship.

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