By Laura Suchan, Executive Director
Before female doctors Emily Stowe and Jennie Trout practiced medicine, there was Oshawa’s own Dr. Jane Mary Plews. Born in Ontario about 1832, Dr. Plews practiced medicine before the establishment of the (Canadian) Women’s Medical College in 1883. She practiced eclectic medicine, a branch of medicine which made use of botanical remedies and was popular during the 19th century. The term eclectic was derived from the Greek word eklego, meaning “to choose from” because eclectic physicians used whatever was found to be most beneficial to their patients. Dr. Plews started studies at the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati, Ohio during the winter term of 1855-56 and graduated in 1856.
Little else is known about Dr. Plews’ medical career. In the 1861 Canadian census, Dr. Plews was shown as living in Oshawa and stated her occupation as a physician. I find this census information to be intriguing given that the census taker was most likely a male who obviously accepted that the woman answering the question of “what is your occupation?” was indeed a physician. Remember this is before women were accepted into the established medical colleges and six years before Emily Stowe began to practice medicine. In the January 1, 1862 edition of The Oshawa Vindicator, an ad for Dr. Plews M.D was placed prominently on the front page alongside ads for (male) Drs. Foote, Warren, Tempest and Agnew. Dr. Plews’ ad gave special notice that she specialized in diseases of women. Dr. Plews’ medical career was also noted in the Progressive Annual 1862, a spiritual register, almanac and calendar of events, which listed her as a practicing woman physician in nearby Bowmanville. She is also listed in the subsequent annuals of 1863 and 1864. The Progressive Annual proudly stated that it only lists regularly graduated and diplomatized physicians engaged in practice. Although the Annual noted that their list of practicing women physicians was “the most complete ever published” it was most likely not inclusive. It deserves mention that Dr. Plews was the only Canadian amongst all the names. I am confident Dr. Plews was quite proud of her listing in the Annual because she was in good company for the Annual also contained the names of other forward-thinking individuals such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (Literature, Morals and General Education) and Susan B. Anthony (Freedom and Equality of the Sexes).
In 1867 she married Patrick Thornton, a machinist, and they had one child, Frederick born about 1877. Husband Patrick died in 1880 from consumption and was buried in Oshawa’s Union Cemetery. Jane and son Patrick are listed in the 1891 census however there is no occupation listed for her. By 1901, Jane was a lodger in the household of Fanny Pethick, also of Oshawa. Jane passed away from a stroke in 1904 and was laid to rest alongside her husband in Union Cemetery.
It is unfortunate we do not know how long Dr. Plews’ medical career lasted. After the 1861 census, she no longer listed her occupation as physician and with the scarcity of Oshawa newspapers in existence for the 1860s, we have no indication of how long she ran her ad in the newspapers. For now, we will have to say that the rest of Dr. Plews’ story remains to be told.