Museum of Healthcare at Kingston

Lead photo courtesy of Museum of Healthcare at Kingston

In 1904 the Nurses’ Home opened in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Conveniently located next to the Kingston General Hospital, it provided accommodation for twenty-six nursing students at the Kingston General Hospital for the duration of their studies. It was a beautiful beaux-arts style construction, built of limestone, the rock which gives Kingston its moniker of “the Limestone City.” As the nursing program grew and further residences were built, the Nurses’ Home remained at the heart of much of the nursing student life at Kingston General Hospital. In 1942 one of these additional buildings was renamed the Ann Baillie building in honor of the late school superintendent, who herself was a graduate of the nursing school.

In 1992 the Ann Baillie building was demolished, and the name was re-applied to the 1904 Nurses’ Home, and in 1995 the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston moved in. The Museum was conceived of in 1988 and collections began in 1991, with a preliminary outreach gallery opening in 1994 in the Hall of Honour at Kingston General Hospital. With the 1995 move into the Ann Baillie building the Museum of Healthcare was given a permanent home to amass and display its collection, which is now the largest collection of healthcare-related artifacts in Canada. In 1998 the Ann Baillie Building was recognized as a National Historic Site, making it the Museum’s largest artifact.

While the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston covers lots of ground in its exhibitions (stop by to learn about historical “quackery,” trench medicine during the First World War, and the invention of the x-ray), it stays true to its roots as a residence for nursing students. “For Service to Humanity” is a permanent exhibition in the museum which explores and celebrates nursing and nursing education. Also in the collection is a plaque which commemorates women who died at the front during the First World War, whose contributions to life on the front are too often forgotten.

The history of medicine is one in which women’s contributions are too-often ignored. With women of all ethnicities, and men of colour, being excluded from healthcare professions in Canada for as long as they were, it is easy to ignore the contributions of these marginalized groups when discussing the history of formal healthcare. Dr. Andersen Abbott, Canada’s first Black doctor, did not get his license until 1861. The first woman to practice medicine in Canada was Dr. Emily Stowe, who opened her practice in Toronto in 1867 (Dr. Stowe was forced to study in New York, after Canadian medical schools rejected her application on the basis of gender). More horrifyingly, it took until 2016 for Dr. Nadine Caron to become Canada’s first female First Nations surgeon. Truly, the history of medicine in this country is very male, and very white.

With their focus on the history of nursing, and by extension their focus on the history of women in Canadian healthcare, the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston is a breath of fresh air in this landscape. Even in exhibitions which are not specifically about women in healthcare, the museum being housed in the historic Ann Baillie Building means that visitors are literally surrounded by the history of nursing. It is a fitting tribute to the unsung women who have shaped healthcare in Canada: without this building, there would be no museum. Without these women, healthcare as Canadians know it would not exist.

Kingston is a small, historic city located halfway between Montreal and Toronto, nestled right where Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River meet. It is a mecca for history buffs, with historic buildings around every corner and a plethora of historic sites. In a city so rich in history, it can be hard for a small museum to stand out. Trust me, however. Between sampling microbrews in historic taverns and joining one of the many ghost tours Kingston offers, take an hour to visit the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston next time you visit. It is truly a special place, with lots of history to share.

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Samantha Summers

Samantha Summers is in the second year of both a Master of Information and a Master of Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. In 2018 she earned a Master of Arts from Queen’s University, Kingston, and prior to that earned an Honours Bachelor of from the University of Toronto. Samantha’s research primarily focuses on gender in the medieval Levant, and in her spare time pursues bookbinding.