Teachers of Pathology in Montreal 1874-1954: Osler, Abbott, Adami, McCrea and Masson
Moderators: Dr. Robin Cooke and Dr. Ann Marie Nelson
Section 4 -
A Revolutionary in the Museum: Maude Abbott at McGill 1898-1936
Sylvia L. Asa
Department of Pathology
University Health Network and Toronto Medical Laboratories
Department of Laboratory
Medicine and Pathobiology
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The story of Maude Abbott is one of persistence, patience and dedication to the field of Pathology.
Her legacy impacts four major areas, and it is difficult to know which of these is the most important.
Maude Abbott was responsible for the entry of women into the field of medicine in Canada, she catalogued
and classified congenital cardiac defects, she assembled a medical museum that became the basis for the
teaching program of McGill university and set the standard for pathology departments throughout the
world, and she played a major role as a founding member of the International Association of Medical
Museums, the precursor of the International Academy of Pathology.
The story of Maude Abbott
Maude Elizabeth Seymour Babin was born on March 18, 1869 in St. Andrews East (now called
Saint-André-Est), Quebec , Maude's early life was difficult; she, her elder sister and mother were
abandoned by her father, and she was orphaned at seven months when her mother died of tuberculosis.
Fortunately, Maude and her sister Alice were legally adopted by their maternal grandmother, Mrs. William
Abbott, who changed their surname to her own. The Abbotts were a respected and influential family. Her
grandmother, then 62 years old, was a wonderful and gracious woman who raised her daughter's two children
alone and provided them with tremendous support. It is said that when Maude daringly asked her
grandmother if she could become a doctor, her remarkable grandmother replied, "Dear child, you may do
anything you like."
After home-schooling, Maude eagerly took her final high school year at a private seminary in Montreal
. In June 1885 she won a scholarship to attend the McGill-affiliated Royal Victoria College for women.
"I was consumed by an intense thirst for the school work, and
hurled myself into it with tremendous zest, with the result that I was fortunate as to win the
scholarship into McGill from the school."
In 1886 Maude was in 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 Bachelor of Arts degree in
1890, winning the Lord Stanley Gold Medal and graduating as class valedictorian.
Maude had come to love McGill: "I literally fell in love
with McGill", she wrote. She was determined to study medicine
there; however, the school would not accept women into its medical program. Maude sought help from her
influential relative, John Abbott, a McGill graduate who had been Dean of its law faculty from 1855 until
1880 and who was to become Prime Minister of Canada in 1891-1892. He urged her to gain public support
for the admission of women to Canadian medical schools. In 1889 Maude publicly petitioned to have
medical courses for women at McGill and helped raise money to pay for them. Her petition sparked a
public debate that caught the attention of the media, with Montreal's Gazette newspaper coming on-side
and supporting the movement to allow women to study medicine. Despite this 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 honors in June 1894, winning the Senior
Anatomy Prize and the Chancellor's Prize.
Maude and her sister decided to travel to Europe but Alice contacted a brain disease
leaving Maude to care for her over the next 40 years. Returning to Montreal , Maude opened her own
office treating women and children in 1897. Working also at the Royal Victoria Hospital , she delved
into pathology research and produced an important paper reporting a study of functional heart murmurs.
At that time, the Montreal Medico-Chirurgical Society did not admit women, so Maude's paper was presented
at their meeting by a male colleague. The paper was well received and Maude was nominated as and elected
the Society's first female member.
Early in her career, Dr. Abbott developed an abiding appreciation of the important roles a medical
museum could play in the teaching program of a medical faculty. In the summer of 1898 she was appointed
Assistant Curator of the Medical Museum of McGill University. The specimens there had never been
organized and she learned how best to classify them by visiting some American medical museums. S he
began cataloguing specimens and became interested in pathology.
Reducing her practice, Dr. Abbott devoted most of her time to the Museum and was named Curator in
1901. She focused her studies on heart disease. Abbott was stimulated by the ideas of Sir William
Osler, a fellow Canadian physician and medical educator known for his outstanding work in a variety of
clinical fields and a professor at McGill, the University of Pennsylvania , Johns Hopkins, and Oxford .
Maude had met Dr. Osler in Baltimore, and when he visited the McGill 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
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 and published in 1908, this work promoted Dr. Abbott as the
world authority in the field of congenital heart disease. These writings, based on findings of over four
hundred cases, led Dr. Olser to write to her, "It is by far
and away the very best thing ever written on the subject in English, possibly any language. For years it
will be the standard work on the subject." This work made important contributions to the
development of cardiac surgery. Almost to the end of the nineteenth century it was agreed that the heart
could not be treated surgically. Through her careful classification and documentation as a pathologist,
Abbott provided basic scientific data of strategic value to those who pioneered in the development of
surgical procedures for the treatment of heart problems.
Abbott's contacts in the US led to the development of the International
Association of Medical Museums, known today as the International Academy of
Pathology. From 1907 until 1938 she served as the international Secretary and Editor of the Journal of the International Association of Medical Museums.
In 1910, eight years before women medical students were admitted, McGill University could no longer
ignore Maude Abbott's brilliant work and the growth of her international reputation, even though she was
female. While still refusing to admit women into its medical school, McGill took the unusual step of
awarding her an honorary MD CM, which it had refused to let her earn as a student. McGill also appointed
her to its medical staff as Lecturer in Pathology. A male physician with the same outstanding reputation
would have been given an assistant professorship or even a full professorship. She was eventually
appointed Assistant Professor in 1925.
In 1923 she was invited to serve as Chief of Pathology at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania.
In 1926 Abbott returned to McGill in Canada where she continued her work on congenital heart disease that
ultimately led to her book, The Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease published
in 1936. Based on 1000 cases, she described a new classification system for congenital heart diseases.
This work was praised as an important contribution to medical knowledge and paved the way for her to be
made an honorary member of the all-male Osler Society.
During her career, 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. That 600-page volume with 120
contributors took six years to complete. She also wrote a history of nursing that was later used in
nursing schools across the country.
In 1936 Dr. Abbott turned 65 but had no wish to retire. McGill insisted, however, and compensated by
granting her an honorary doctorate. She reluctantly retired from her long career as Curator. After she
retired from McGill, the Carnegie Foundation gave her a grant to draw together all she had learned
concerning heart disease. Unfortunately this work was never completed. Suffering a cerebral hemorrhage
in the summer of 1940, she died on September 2 at the age of 71.
The Legacy of Maude Abbott
Known as the "beneficent tornado", Dr. Abbott's energy was legendary. She was a member (or a guest
member when only men were admitted) of at least 18 organizations. In addition to more than 140 medical
publications, she published 11 major historical works of a non-medical nature.
After her death, the great Mexican painter Diego Rivera paid tribute to Maude Abbott in 1943. He
included her among the fifty most important heart specialists in world history whom he portrayed in a
mural 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 for the
entrance of the McIntyre Medical Building .
The International Academy of Pathology continues to recognize Maude Abbot for her leadership and
contributions. Its letterhead reads "Founded by Maude Abbott in 1906" and the Academy established the
Maude Abbott Lecture in 1958.
In 1924 she helped to found and became the first Chair of the Medical Women of Canada (now The
Federation of Medical Women) a Canadian organization committed to the professional, social and personal
advancement of women physicians. The Foundation established the Maude Abbott Memorial Scholarship Loan
Fund in 1938. 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 honor as part of the Millenium Collection on January 17, 2000 .
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 Pathology"s greatest heroines and role models.
A selection of Maude Abbott's writings:
- The Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease
- Pigmentation-cirrhosis in a case of Haemochromatosis
- An Historical Sketch of the Medical
Faculty of McGillUniversity
- On the Classification of Museum Specimens-American Medicine
- The Museum in Medical Teaching
- Congenital Cardiac Disease in Osler's Modern Medicine
- The Determination of Basal Metabolism by Indirect Calorimetry
- Florence Nightingale as seen in her portraits
- McGill's Heroic Past