Marion Hilliard was born into a happy and pious family of Irish and English descent in Morrisburg, a picturesque village in Ontario, along the shores of the St. Lawrence River. She was the third child of five. Her parents, Anna and Irwin Hilliard were missionary-oriented Methodists, active in their community. Irwin Hilliard was a lawyer with a busy practice, but his children’s happiness was his first priority. His wife was an enthusiastic woman who insisted that all her children, both the boys and girls, were equally educated.
Marion used to refer to her childhood as “those glorious years.” She loved school and was at the top of her class. She played piano like her brothers and sisters and also played sports like many village children. Especially, she loved hockey, tennis, and swimming. There were household duties, such as cooking and cleaning, that all Hilliard children were engaged in. In those days, Marion’s greatest ambition was to “be a married lady with six children.”
Marion’s first interest in medicine was provoked at the age of 14. She helped on a farm and once was asked to skin two rabbits for supper. Later, she told her friend how much she enjoyed that activity. The friend then asked whether she wanted to be a doctor. No, she did not. She knew that her parents would not let her.
A few years later, Marion completed Grade 13 with honors but failed her senior piano examination. The latter disappointed her because she wanted to become a concert pianist. When she told her family that she would try the exam again, her father said that she should forget about a career as a pianist if she could not be the best. She listened to him and applied to a university.
In September of 1920, Marion entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Her father wanted his daughter to choose a traditional female occupation and become a teacher, but Marion wanted to study science. Finally, after a big argument, he let her go her own way, hoping that she would teach science.
Marion’s science courses required long lab sessions and much studying on weekends; however, she spent plenty of time on extra-curricular activities. In Toronto, Marion could do many things that were not allowed in her parents’ strict household, such as going to the theatre or dances. She also loved the literary society and all sports. She became the star of the Varsity Girls Hockey Team and was named Athlete of the Year in her third year. However, Marion’s strongest interest was in the Student Christian Movement; she served as its president for several years.
Marion graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1924 and went on to study medicine on a Moss Scholarship.
Although the University of Toronto Medical School started accepting female students in 1906, women were still unwelcome in many classes and clinics. But this was not the most difficult new situation to overcome. At her first exposure to medical school, Marion was taken by shock: she could not stand seeing so much human pain and wanted to cancel her studies. This time her father, who initially was so much against his daughter taking science, insisted that she should continue what she had started.
Only when Marion attended the delivery room and witnessed for the first time a baby being born, did her will to become a doctor harden. She knew then what she wanted: she wanted to be an obstetrician.
In 1927, Marion graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine, but to become an obstetrician required a year of internship in this field. Getting a good internship was a problem for women. Marion was advised to take postgraduate training in London, England, and pass her examinations there.
During her first six months abroad, Marion did a clinical apprenticeship in the Hospital for Women in Soho Square. She also took surgical tutorials at the Royal Free Hospital. She was supervised by Miss Gertrude Dearnley, a gynecological surgeon, to whom Marion had handed her letter of introduction.
Soon, Marion passed her exams and earned her degree of Licentiate, Royal College of Physicians. In January of 1928, she was granted the degree of Member of the Royal College of Physicians and started a course in midwifery at the Queen Charlotte Lying-in-Hospital in London. After this, she moved to a Salvation Army Hospital. Next, Marion moved to the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin where she studied and attended home deliveries.
After her return to Canada in July of 1928, Marion decided to start her practice in Toronto. She set up a general practice in the Physicians and Surgeons Building, hoping to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology later. At the same time, she joined the obstetrical staff at Women’s College Hospital where she used to work as a junior intern before graduation.
Marion took different paths to establish herself. She gave lectures about health in schools and churches. She was one of the first doctors who spoke openly about sex education and male-female relationships.
The Great Depression brought many health problems due to lack of food and poor living conditions. Marion shared her office with two other physicians, and the waiting room was always crowded. However, no matter how much work was available, doctors were underpaid. The fees set by the authorities were low. Additionally, the earnings for services given to the needy patients depended on the funds available and were rarely paid in full.
Regardless of her long working hours, Marion contributed to the community as much as she could. She planned special programs for girls at Y.W.C.A; lead a Bible study group, and helped with educational evenings.
After those exhausting years of work in the hospital and clinic, Marion took a leave of absence in 1934 and went to Europe. This time, she took a course in methods of overcoming sterility in women in the Polyklinic in Budapest.
The opening of the new Women’s College Hospital Building in Toronto in February 1936 was an important event for Marion. Like many other doctors, she worked hard on raising funds for the new building. Now, she was an assistant to the head of the obstetrical department, respected by the staff and much-loved by her patients. She rejoiced at the hospital’s modern facilities and new equipment provided to help women physicians treat their patients!
However, these exciting days did not last long.
At the start of WWII, some of Marion’s colleagues enlisted, adding to the workload of the remaining doctors. Active as always in her community, Marion was a member of the Medical Advisory Board and Commission set up by the University of Toronto for British Overseas Children. Her constant heavy workload finally undermined her strong constitution, and in 1945 she required medical treatment. The only good thing about it was that Marion had to take a vacation, the first in many years.
In 1947, Marion was appointed head of the gynecology and obstetrics department at the Women’s College Hospital. This position occupied her fully, yet she had many other projects. She suggested how the hospital could be improved and expanded. She wanted the University’s Faculty of Medicine to accept the hospital for teaching. But her projects often met with indifference or rejection.
That year, 1947, Marion and her colleagues developed a simplified method for detecting early symptoms of cancer, particularly of the cervix. This brought enquiries from all over the world. Marion lobbied for and raised funds for the Cancer Detection Clinic. The Clinic was opened in April 1948, the first of its kind in Canada.
In the early 1950s, Marion’s obstetrical practice was the largest in Toronto: some months she delivered forty babies. This was a heavy workload in addition to her work at the hospital: she had to cut down. She gave her referrals to some younger women obstetricians to help them establish their practices.
She still worked on fund-raising for the new hospital. She wrote articles for Chatelaine and recorded her lectures on tape. She gave interviews on TV on behalf of the hospital fund-raisers. Many of her grateful patients sent donations.
Finally, her long campaign was brought to fruition in 1956. The University of Toronto accepted Women’s College Hospital as a teaching hospital. Later that year, a new hospital wing and nurses’ residences were officially opened. The Right Honorable Louis St. Laurent, then Prime Minister of Canada, cut the ribbon.
Marion retired at age 55 as chief of obstetrics at Women’s College Hospital. She had many dreams about her new life. She thought of going to India, Japan, and China and helping women doctors there. She thought of visiting Greece and Turkey. She could have time to enjoy Birch Point, her property she bought in the early 30s in Scarborough on Lake Ontario.
In addition, Marion was still fully engaged with the medical community. She served as president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada in 1955 – 56; she was to become president of the International Medical Women’s Association. The articles that she had written for Chatelaine were published as a book A woman Doctor Looks at Love and Life in 1957. She was busy preparing lectures and traveling to speak at medical meetings.
However, Marion felt tired in spite of the bright prospects for her future career. Her symptoms worsened in the spring of 1958. Her face became gray, and a deep cough developed. But this did not stop her from working on her new book Women and Fatigue and recording radio interviews.
Soon after her 56th Birthday, Marion required hospitalization. Her closest friends and relatives stayed with her until the very end. She died in her sleep on July 15, 1958, from an obscure cancerous growth.
Dr. Marion Hilliard was buried in Morrisburg, her hometown. Her headstone simply stated: “Beloved Physician.”
Marion O. Robinson, Give My Heart: The Dr. Marion Hilliard Story, 1964
Mary C. Wilson, Marion Hilliard, 1977
Dr. Hilliard’s short profile at Women's College Hospital
Image: Sonnybrook & Women’s College Health Science Canada
- June 17, 1902
- Morrisburg, Ontario
- Date of Death
- July 15, 1958
- Place of Death
- Toronto, Ontario
- B.A. (Science), University of Toronto, 1924
- M.D., University of Toronto, 1927
- Last Updated
- September 25, 2015
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