Queen's School of Medicine: Confronting exclusion

School of Medicine Class of 1917

Queen's 1917 yearbook

In 1918, a motion to ban Black students from the School of Medicine was adopted by Queen's University Senate. Although Black students were admitted again to the school starting in 1965, the motion was never repealed until its existence was brought to light by PhD candidate Edward Thomas (Cultural Studies). The 1918 motion was revoked by Senate 100 years after its adoption and Queen’s University offered a public apology for the ban. There had been 15 Black medical students enrolled at Queen’s when the ban was enacted. In its apology, Queen’s acknowledged that the university had derailed the medical careers of at least two Black students who had been forced to leave Queen’s and who were then unable to find placement at any other medical school. One of those students was Ethelbert Bartholomew, a member of the class of 1918. After leaving Queen’s, Mr. Bartholomew worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railways. He died in 1954. In a 2019 convocation ceremony, Queen’s conferred a posthumous Doctor of Medicine degree upon Dr. Bartholomew, which was accepted by members of his family.

Lost stories
In severing its connections with its Black medical students and alumni, not only did Queen’s thwart the careers of promising young doctors, it also lost the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of former students, including: 

  • Dr. Courtney Clement Ligoure, MD 1916

    Dr. Courtney Clement Ligoure, MD 1916. Queen's University Archives photo

Dr. Courtney Clement Ligoure, MD 1916

Dr. Ligoure graduated from Queen’s before the ban and established his practice in Halifax, N.S. Unable to secure hospital privileges, he set up an independent surgery at his home in the city’s north end. He  became the publisher of the Atlantic Advocate, Nova Scotia’s first African-Canadian news magazine. In 1917, when the Halifax Explosion flattened the city, killing 2,000 people and injuring 9,000 more. Dr. Ligoure provided medical care for hundreds of injured people in his home.

  • Dr.  Hugh Gordon Hylvestra Cummins, MD 1919

    Dr. Hugh Gordon Hylvestra Cummins, MD 1919. Queen's University Archives photo

Dr. Hugh Gordon Hylvestra Cummins, MD 1919

Dr. Cummins was one of seven founding members, in 1938, of the Barbados Progressive League, which later became the Barbados Labour Party (BLP). The BLP brought universal adult suffrage to Barbados, as well as universal health care, free secondary education, and a number of other reforms. Dr. Cummins became the country’s second premier, a position he held from 1958 to 1961.

Moving forward

Following the 2018 repeal of the original ban, Richard Reznick, then Dean of Health Sciences, formed the Commission on Black Medical Students, comprising faculty, students, and staff from Queen’s, in order to address the historical injustice. The commission’s work included personal letters of apology to families of Black students and alumni affected by the ban, changes to the undergraduate medical program curriculum with respect to inclusivity and diversity, the establishment of an admissions award for Black Canadians, and the creation of a mentorship program for Black medical students.

In late July, new Dean of Health Sciences Jane Philpott announced an additional initiative to reduce systemic barriers to medical education. Beginning with the 2020–2021 undergraduate application cycle, the Queen’s University Accelerated Route to Medical School pathway’s 10 seats will be designated for high school graduates who identify as Black or Indigenous. The pathway has participants complete two years of undergraduate studies. Provided they meet predetermined entrance criteria, in their third year, they enter first-year medicine. By waiving regulatory exams like the MCAT, the program makes medical school more accessible to Canadians who might not have otherwise pursued medicine as a career.

In her first blog post to the Queen’s community earlier in July, Dr. Philpott addressed the past and future directions of the faculty, writing,

As a leader in the education of health professionals in the exceptional year of 2020, my greatest obligation to students and to society, is to be fair and inclusive. There is no doubt that systemic racism, sexism, and colonialism exist in Canadian institutions. Many health-care systems and academic institutions are structured in a way that perpetuates these forces. I recognize the unearned privilege that I have received from deep-seated patterns of injustice and I take full responsibility to work with others on changing these structures.

The correct response to recognizing privilege is not denial or guilt, it’s self-reflection and informed action. I am determined to move quickly on these matters. One of my first initiatives will be the formation of the Dean’s Action Table on Equity. This will be more than an academic exercise. We will listen well, and we will take action.

Queen’s Faculty of Health Sciences can attract a student population that better reflects the diversity of Canada. Specifically, we can seek greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples and Black Canadians. Though FHS has already made progress in this area through the introduction of Indigenous admissions processes and the initiatives resulting from the acknowledgment of the ban on Black medical students, there is more to be done. This will require attention to our structural biases, so we can intentionally recruit and support more students and faculty from under-represented populations. We have more work to do on creating mentorships, adapting admission processes, and improving curricula.Queen’s FHS could be a leader in teaching about cultural safety, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism in the delivery of care. My vision is for us to become a centre of excellence on matters of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in the health professions.

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