Shattering the Ben Casey and James Kildare myth: Canada’s first female pediatric surgeon, Dr. Ann Elizabeth Noelle Grace

Dr. Ann Elizabeth Noelle Grace tending to one of her patients, Montreal General Hospital, Montréal, Québec. Claude Adams, “An eye-opener for our reporter – Team of women doctors shatters Ben Casey myth.” The Gazette, 3 March 1971, 31.

The medical profession is undoubtedly one of the most popular with creators of television series. Over the years and decades, fictional doctors have proven and are proving to be unorthodox, surly, skilled, sensitive, respectful, respected, reserved, quirky, patient, outspoken, neurotic, narcissistic, naïve, mischievous, misanthropic, loyal, kind, intense, idealistic, flawed, fearless, devoted, determined, dedicated, cynical, curmudgeonly, cool, compassionate, collected, charming, charismatic, caring, cannibalistic, calm, brooding, brilliant, arrogant, altruistic, and abrasive.

Real life doctors may not be all that all the time, which would be exhausting, but they are nonetheless remarkable individuals.

The doctor yours truly would like to bring to your attention today is a remarkable representative of this most remarkable profession. Indeed, Dr. Ann Elizabeth Noelle Grace was / is Canada’s first female pediatric surgeon.

Grace was born in London, Ontario, in February 1942. Her father, Archibald John Grace, was a surgeon at Victoria Hospital, in London.

Grace was a very active young woman. In 1956, for example, she won the Canadian women’s waterskiing championship. While studying medicine at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Grace played for the Mustangs women’s basketball team.

She graduated in 1965.

In 1970, Grace was in Montréal, Québec, training at the Montreal General Hospital, an institution affiliated with McGill University, an institution of high learning based in Montréal. Indeed, she was one of the first women to move into specialised medicine in Québec.

Would you believe that the Collège des médecins et chirurgiens du Québec, today’s Collège des médecins du Québec, did not permit a woman to head a surgical team until the mid to late 1960s?

During her time at the Montreal General Hospital, Grace worked with many eminent individuals. One only needs to mention Carime Emilia Isa Isa, the first female surgeon in the Dominican Republic, who practised more than 30 years in her homeland before retiring.

Interestingly, Grace was the first woman to join the team of doctors which accompanied Canadian athletes at a British Commonwealth Games. That particular edition, held in 1970, was in Edinburgh, Scotland.

As was said (typed?) above, Grace was / is Canada’s first female pediatric surgeon. She joined the staff of the Montreal Children’s Hospital at some point in the 1970s. Around 1980, she left this institution to continue pediatric surgery at North York General Hospital, in North York, a city now integrated within Toronto, Ontario.

Grace soon became known for her talent as well as for her compassion, both with her young patients and their parents. This mentor and role model was / is one of the Canadian surgeons highlighted in the Apple TV series The Surgeons. The episode which dealt with her was broadcasted in September 2003.

Grace retired in 2012, after more than 30 years of service.

In recognition of her accomplishments, the North York General Foundation set up an endowment fund named after her to support pediatric surgery, and…

You have a question, don’t you, my reading friend. Who are, or were, Ben Casey and James Kildare, you ask? Well, this dynamic duo of fictitious doctors were the main characters of a pair of American television series, Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, broadcasted between September 1961 and August 1966 on the one hand, and between October 1961 and March 1966 on the other hand. Yours truly might be mistaken, but I have a feeling that more people remember the young and naïve Kildare than the mature and sure of himself Casey.

Of the 2 series, it looks as if only Dr. Kildare was dubbed in French and shown in Canada and / or France under the titles Dr. Kildare and Le jeune docteur Kildare. I cannot recall ever watching an episode of this series during my youth.

Typing of recalling, I think it might be time to end this peroration. If I may be permitted to quote, out of context, of course, the cannibal doctor Hannibal Lecter of the magnificent but frightening 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, I’m having an old friend for dinner. Ta ta for now.

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Rénald Fortier