Jean Flatt Davey

Jean Flatt Davey, OC, OBE, physician, air force officer (born 16 March 1909 in Hamilton, ON; died 13 March 1980). Davey was the first woman medical doctor to become a commissioned officer in the Canadian armed forces. From 1950 to 1965, she was chief physician in the department of medicine at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Ontario.

Dr. Davey was the first woman medical doctor to become a commissioned officer in the Canadian armed forces. She was appointed to the medical branch of the RCAF Women’s Division in 1941.

Early Life and Education

Jean Flatt Davey was born in 1909 in Hamilton, Ontario, to Dr. J. Edgar Davey and Jennie Eldora Flatt. Her father served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was later appointed Medical Officer of Health in Hamilton. Davey attended the University of Toronto, graduating with an arts degree in 1933 before enrolling in the medical faculty. She received her medical degree in 1936.

Davey was also involved in university sports. In a 1941 article in the Hamilton Spectator, she was described as “tall and slim with dark hair and brown eyes…keenly interested in sports at the university.” Davey was president of the university women’s baseball club and one of only five members of the varsity women’s athletic directorate during her undergraduate years. As a medical student, she was president of the university tennis club and of the intercollegiate team.

Did you know?
By the end of the 19th century, growing numbers of middle- and upper-class girls and women were participating in sports, particularly at private schools and universities. Yet even in the 20th century, many commentators believed that women shouldn’t be playing “sweaty” team sports. Tennis, figure skating, diving and swimming were considered more graceful and feminine and therefore more appropriate for women. (See also The History of Canadian Women in Sport.)

After graduating from the Faculty of Medicine in 1936, Davey began a two-year medical internship at Toronto General Hospital. She then did a year’s residency at Women’s College Hospital, specializing in internal medicine. In 1939, she joined the staff of Women’s College Hospital and the following year, she became medical adviser for women at the University of Toronto.

CWAAF Instruction Staff, Toronto 1941

Military Career

In 1941, Jean Flatt Davey was recruited for the newly created Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF). According to the Hamilton Spectator, “Flight Officer Davey said that until a few days ago she had not even thought of enlisting for service, but had accepted the position when approached by authorities.” She was the first woman medical doctor to become a commissioned officer in the Canadian armed forces.

Davey was appointed 18 August 1941 to the medical branch, only the second officer (after Kathleen Oonah Walker) commissioned in the CWAAF. Davey and Walker soon toured the country, selecting the first 150 members of the CWAAF.

Did you know?
HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, wife of the governor general of Canada, was the honorary Air Commandant of the RCAF Women’s Division.

In February 1942, the CWAAF was renamed RCAF Women’s Division (WD); the women’s service was no longer an auxiliary organization but part of the RCAF. Later that year, Davey was promoted to Squadron Officer. She headed a staff of eight women doctors and was responsible for the health of the entire division. As such, Davey spent most of her time at Air Force Headquarters in Ottawa, although she also toured the country inspecting stations where the “WDs” served. She also supported recruiting programmes, stressing the excellence of medical care in the RCAF Women’s Division to young women and their parents. This included the RCAF immunization programme, medical centres at every station and hospital care provided by the Department of Pensions and National Health.

Did you know?
The RCAF Women’s Division was established in July 1941, followed by the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (August 1941) and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (July 1942). By the end of the war, more than 17,000 women had served as “WDs” in Canada and overseas.

Davey’s contributions as Chief Medical Officer of the RCAF Women’s Division were recognized in 1943, when she became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (Military).

Postwar Career

In 1945, the Second World War ended, and Jean Flatt Davey retired from the military. That year, she also became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada. Davey returned to Women’s College Hospital and became associate chief of the department of medicine. In 1950, she was promoted to chief physician, a position she held until 1965. When the Women’s College Hospital became affiliated with the University of Toronto in 1958 as a teaching hospital, Davey became the first woman to head a medical department at a teaching hospital in Canada. From 1965 until her retirement in 1973, she was the hospital’s director of medical training. After she retired, the Women’s College Hospital established the Jean Davey Honorary Fund.

In 1973, Davey was invested as Officer in the Order of Canada “for her services to medicine as an educator and administrator in the post of head of the RCAF Women's Division Medical Services and at the Women's College Hospital, Toronto.” She died on 13 March 1980. A street in Ottawa, Ontario, was named in her honour in 2021.