Dr. Anna Henry: Medical Trailblazer for Women 

Dr. Anna Henry  from Markdale, was a medical trailblazer for women doctors in Canada, who helped lay the groundwork for the establishment for Women's College Hospital.


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In the 19th century, most girls gave little thought to the idea of becoming a physician. This field was almost totally exclusive to men in Canada. The first woman to practice medicine in Canada graduated in 1847 in England. In order to practice her vocation in this country, she found it necessary to spend her entire professional career dressed as a man! In 1877, there were no licensed female physicians in Canada. 

However, one young woman growing up near Markdale, Ontario, chose to challenge the status quo.

Anna Henry Was born in 1853, and grew up on a farm about one mile south of Markdale. The premature death of two aunts kept Anna at home until she was 30 years old, helping to raise her cousins and siblings. 

However, these events did not deter her ambitions. She eventually enrolled at the University of Toronto and graduated in 1898 as a licensed physician.

After graduation, she and a colleague started a hospital for women in the basement of a house, in Toronto. Eventually, this small clinic operation would grow to become Toronto Women's College Hospital. 

However, it was not Anna Henry’s destiny to remain in Toronto. 

The Women's Missionary Society was eager to send female physicians overseas. Although the missionary board did not provide high salaries, they did give their doctors the best equipment and medicine available. 

Anna Henry chose this new challenge and was appointed the Women's Missionary Society s first female Canadian overseas medical missionary. In 1899, she set sail for Chengtu in west China. 

Today a trip to the Orient is an arduous flight, but it is nothing like the trip that Dr. Henry embarked upon more than a century ago. 

Her journey started with a train trip to the Atlantic coast, where she boarded a ship, which would take her across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and finally, the East China Sea to Shanghai. The final leg of the trip would take her up the Yangtze River to Chengtu. 

During her many years in China, Dr. Henry would experience much of the political turmoil of early 20th century China. Upon her arrival, she worked for a year learning the language of the area and practicing medicine. 

However, she was forced to return to the coast as the Boxer Revolution made it too dangerous for foreigners in the interior of the country. She travelled to Japan and returned a year later to resume her duties in Chengtu. 

In 1911, revolutionary violence once again rocked China and the British Foreign Office ordered the evacuation of missionaries to the coast. 

When Dr. Henry returned to Chengtu in 1912, the direction of the mission work shifted. Instead of trying to change society totally, they began to focus on upgrading the quality of life for women in China. 

Dr. Henry helped develop a new hospital and training facility for nurses. It was completed in 1915, with the first graduating class of nurses occurring in 1918. 

She remained at this location until 1928 when the national uprising started. This revolution would bring another doctor who lived for a time in Grey County — Norman Bethune — to China. 

With her health failing, she returned to the Oriental community in that city. The following year, she retired and returned to her hometown of Markdale. 

Dr. Anna Henry's career in China lasted 30 years while the average career of other doctors who served with the Women's Missionary Society averaged only eight years! This determined, and dedicated pioneer female doctor, from Grey County died in 1942. 

I would like to thank Lois and Doug Henry of Markdale, who provided the research notes and a copy of the speech given by Susan Henry Robertson, the great-grand niece of Dr. Anna Henry, to the Canadian Methodist Historical Society. I am always appreciative of readers who send information for use in this column. 

A version of "Dr. Anna Henry: Medical Trailblazer for Women" originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times

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