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Indigenous Peoples' Medicine in Canada
Since time immemorial Indigenous peoples in Canada have been using plants and other natural materials as medicine. Plant medicines are used more frequently than those derived from animals. In all, Indigenous peoples have identified over 400 different species of plants (as well as lichens, fungi and algae) with medicinal applications. Medicine traditions — the plants used, the ailments treated, protocols for harvesting and application, and modes of preparation — are similar for Indigenous peoples across the country. In many Indigenous communities, there are recognized specialists trained in traditional medicine, and their practice often reflects spiritual aspects of healing as well as physical outcomes. In many cases, the therapeutic properties of Indigenous medicines are attributable to particular compounds and their effects on the body, but in other instances, their application is little understood by western medical practitioners. Within Indigenous communities, specific methods of harvesting and preparation of medicines are considered intellectual property of particular individuals or families.
Jennie Smillie Robertson, physician, surgeon and teacher (born 10 February 1878 in Huron County, ON; died 26 February 1981 in Toronto, ON). Smillie is considered the first recorded female surgeon to practise in Ontario. She also performed the first major gynecological surgery in Canada.
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Emily Howard Jennings Stowe, physician, teacher, school principal, suffragist (born 1 May 1831 in Norwich, Ontario; died 30 April 1903 in Toronto, Ontario). Stowe was a founder of the Canadian Women’s Suffrage Association. She is considered to be the first female physician to publicly practise medicine in Ontario. She was also the first female principal of a public school in Ontario.
Nadine Rena Caron, surgeon, researcher, mentor, educator, patient advocate, community leader (born 1970 in Kamloops, BC). Nadine Caron was the first female First Nations student to graduate from the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine. She was also the first female First Nations general surgeon in Canada. For many years, Caron has highlighted the needs and voices of northern, rural and Indigenous populations in Canada.
Oronhyatekha (pronounced O-RON-ya-day-ga, meaning "Burning Sky" or “Burning Cloud”), also known as Peter Martin, a Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk) medical doctor and businessman (born 10 August 1841 on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, Canada West [now Ontario]; died 3 March 1907 in Savannah, Georgia, US). In 1867, Oronhyatekha became the second Indigenous person in Canada to earn a medical degree. Passionate about Indigenous issues, he was elected to the Grand General Indian Council of Ontario and Quebec in 1872, where he fought against the restrictive measures of the Indian Act. Oronhyatekha was also a businessman and, in 1881, headed the Independent Order of Foresters.
Laurent “Dr. Kill” Duvernay-Tardif, CQ, football player, doctor (born 11 February 1991 in Saint-Jean-Baptiste, QC). Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is an offensive lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League (NFL). Only the 10th player ever drafted into the NFL from Canadian college and university football, he became the first Quebec-born football player to win a Super Bowl championship in 2020. The first active NFL player to become a doctor, he opted out of the 2020 season to work as an orderly at a long-term care facility in Montreal during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was made a Chevalier of the Ordre National du Québec in 2019. In 2020, he was named a Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated magazine, as well as co-winner, with soccer player Alphonso Davies, of the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year.
Stanley Vollant, CQ, Innu surgeon, professor and lecturer (born 2 April 1965 in Quebec City,
Quebec). Vollant is the first Indigenous surgeon trained in Quebec. In 1996, he received a National
Aboriginal Role Model Award from the Governor General of Canada. Vollant began Innu Meshkenu in 2010, a 6,000 km walk to promote the teachings of First Nations and to encourage Indigenous young people to pursue their dreams. In 2016, he founded the non-profit organization Puamun Meshkenu to inspire and support Indigenous peoples in their mental and physical health.
Sir Frederick Banting
Sir Frederick Grant Banting, KBE, MC, FRS, FRSC, co-discoverer of insulin, medical scientist, painter (born 14 November 1891 in Alliston, ON; died 21 February 1941 near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland). Banting is best known as one of the scientists who discovered insulin in 1922. After this breakthrough, he became Canada’s first professor of medical research at the University of Toronto. Banting was also an accomplished amateur painter. As an artist, he had links to A.Y. Jackson and the Group of Seven.
Armand Frappier, CC, physician, microbiologist (born 26 November 1904 in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, QC; died 17 December 1991 in Montréal, QC). Armand Frappier was a key figure in the fight against tuberculosis in Canada; he both produced the BCG (bacillus Calmette-Guérin) vaccine and advocated widespread vaccinations across the country. As founder and director of the Institut de microbiologie et d'hygiène de Montréal, he advanced medical research into infectious diseases and played an important role in the development of public health. (See also INRS-Armand-Frappier Santé Biotechnologie Research Centre.) He and his team produced a number of vaccines and other biological products (e.g., the anti-polio Salk vaccine, penicillin) and were responsible for freeze-drying blood serum for the armed forces during the Second World War. (See also Canada and the Development of the Polio Vaccine).
Peter Henderson Bryce
Peter Henderson Bryce, physician, public health official (born 17 August 1853 in Mount Pleasant, Canada West; died 15 January 1932 at sea). Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce was a pioneer of public health and sanitation policy in Canada. He is most remembered for his efforts to improve the health and living conditions of Indigenous people. His Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories exposed the unsanitary conditions of residential schools in the Prairie provinces. It also prompted national calls for residential school reform.
Jennie (Jenny) Kidd Trout, physician, teacher (born 21 April 1841 in Kelso, Scotland; died 10 November 1921 in Hollywood, California). Trout was the first female physician licensed to practice medicine in Canada. She received her licence from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario in 1875.
Jean Chamberlain Froese
Jean Chamberlain Froese, CM, MD, MEd, FRCSC, obstetrician, associate professor, international expert in women’s reproductive health (born 27 March 1965 in St. Thomas, ON). Chamberlain Froese is founding director of Save the Mothers and the founder and co-director of McMaster University’s International Women’s Health Program.
Dominique François Gaspard, physician and community builder (born 22 December 1884 in New Orleans, Louisiana; died 6 February 1938 in Montreal, QC). Gaspard was a respected doctor and a trailblazer in Montreal’s Black district. After serving with distinction at a field hospital during the First World War, he devoted himself to medical practice in Montreal. He also worked to create social and intellectual outlets for Black men in the city. A bilingual Catholic, he was unique in the city’s early-20th-century anglophone Protestant Black community. His story speaks of a complexity of language, ethnicity and migration not often explored in narratives of Quebec’s English-speaking and Black communities.
James Miranda Steuart Barry, FRS (probably born Margaret Anne Bulkley), military surgeon, physician (born c. 1789–99; died 25 July 1865 in London, England). Posted across the British Empire, Barry reformed medical standards in the British army. His final and highest-ranking position was as inspector-general of military hospitals in the Province of Canada in the 1850s. After his death, it was reported that Barry’s assigned sex at birth was female. This has sparked significant debate about his identity.
Note on pronouns: This article refers to James Barry with masculine pronouns, as this was how Barry referred to himself throughout his life.Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.
Onyenyechukwu (Onye) Nnorom, family physician, specialist in public health and preventive medicine (born 27 February 1981 in Montreal, Quebec). Nnorom is the associate director of the residency program in public health and preventive medicine at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She also leads the Black health curriculum at the university’s medical school. Her work addresses the health inequities that racialized and immigrant communities face.
Margaret Wilson Thompson
Margaret (Peggy) Anne Wilson Thompson, CM, human geneticist (born 7 January 1920 on the Isle of Man, England; died 3 November 2014 in Toronto, ON). Thompson contributed to human genetics through research on a variety of genetic disorders, particularly muscular dystrophy. She also cowrote Genetics in Medicine, a widely used text. While celebrated among her peers for her gifts as a scientist, mentor and teacher, she left a controversial legacy for her participation in eugenics in the early 1960s.
Maude Elizabeth Seymour Abbott, cardiac pathologist, physician, curator (born 18 March 1868 in St. Andrews East, QC; died 2 September 1940 in Montreal, QC). Maude Abbott is known as the author of The Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease (1936), a groundbreaking text in cardiac research. Though Abbott graduated in arts from McGill University (1890), she was barred from studying medicine at McGill because of her gender. Instead, she attended Bishop’s College (now Bishop’s University), earning a medical degree in 1894. As assistant curator of the McGill Medical Museum (1898), and curator (1901), she revolutionized the teaching of pathology by using the museum as an instructional tool. Abbott’s work paved the way for women in medicine and laid the foundation for modern heart surgery. (See also Women in STEM).
Roberta Lynn Bondar, CC, OOnt, FRSC, astronaut, neurologist, physician, educator, photographer (born 4 December 1945 in Sault Ste Marie, ON). Bondar became the first Canadian woman and second Canadian in space when she flew aboard the American space shuttle Discovery in 1992. A doctor specializing in the nervous system, she is a pioneer in space medicine research. Bondar is also an exhibited and published nature photographer. She established The Roberta Bondar Foundation to educate people about environmental protection through art, and she currently serves as one of the organization’s directors.
Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer of British Columbia (2018 to present), epidemiologist, physician (born 1965 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island). Dr. Bonnie Henry is best known for leading British Columbia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also worked to eradicate polio and to contain Ebola and SARS. Henry is a family care physician and a specialist in preventative medicine. She is the first woman to serve as BC’s provincial health officer.
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