Historians of Tomorrow

Irma LeVasseur

Many little Montrealers and Quebeckers came into this world or have been cared for at Hôpital Sainte-Justine. Are you one of them? Let's see how the hospital itself was born, with a quick trip to Quebec City in 1903 and a round of applause for Irma LeVasseur, the very first woman to be allowed by the Legislative Assembly to join the provincial College of physicians and surgeons. Irma LeVasseur was 25. She was born in Quebec City, but didn't study medicine there or anywhere else in Quebec, since women weren't accepted in medicine at the province's universities. She went to the United States to study instead.

In 1907, back in Montreal, Irma wanted to open a children's hospital. For although Dr. Sévérin Lachapelle, "devoured by the microbe of his love for sick children," was advocating health care for all, back then one-fifth of all infants did not survive—and there was no hospital for French-Canadian children.

How better to raise the necessary funds than by appealing to other women? Here we see Irma, on November 26, 1907, in the home of Madame Rodier-Thibaudeau, who called together some old school friends, the wives of a chief surgeon, of a senator, of the President of La Presse and of influential businessman Louis de Gaspé-Beaubien.

Listen to Justine Lacoste-Beaubien: I will never forget that Saturday afternoon […] when a young woman trained as a doctor in the United States […] came to see me to ask for help with a plan dear to her heart: to found a children's hospital. […] I can still remember going to see my husband, who was reading the newspaper […]. We had no children ourselves, and it seemed entirely natural to him that I should do something for the less fortunate in life. He agreed to the idea straight away, and afterwards he always took an interest in it, supporting the hospital with his name and donations.

Great dreams can sometimes be expressed in simple words. Justine talked to politicians, a bishop, industrialists... and with Irma, inuagurated the Refuge des petits malades in premises on Saint-Denis Street. It was soon overflowing! After moving several times, the current hospital was officially opened in 1956, in Côte-des-Neiges.

Clinics like this, or La Goutte de lait at Sainte-Justine, dispensed free advice and free milk. Pasteurized milk. In 1914, less than one-quarter of the milk sold in Montreal was pasteurized, and by the time the milk cans carried in unrefrigerated wagons reached the city, 90% of the milk was unfit to drink! Adding more public health inspectors, chlorinating the water (1910) and introducing water filtration (1918) all helped to lower the infant mortality rate.


Links to other interesting websites about Irma LeVasseur

• Library and Archives Canada :

• Émission De remarquables oubliés sur le site de Radio-Canada (in French):

Complimentary information about this person's era (for the post-visit activity in class)

• Montreal, 500 Years of History in Archives:
See chapters 8 and 9.

Image source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Irma LeVasseur

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