Medicine and motherhood

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2020

A woman standing next to a garden.

Class of ‘54 alumna Dr. Doris Kavanagh-Gray reflects on half a century of women in medicine, and her small part in a large societal change.

By Michelle Read
Staff writer

When Doris Kavanagh-Gray graduated from high school in Ottawa in the late 1940s, she wanted to study either law or medicine.

Rejected from several universities because of her lack of post-secondary education, she turned to Father Lorenzo Danis, a local Catholic priest and founder of the University of Ottawa’s newly minted medical school.

“I called the University of Ottawa and asked for an interview with Father Danis at the Faculty of Medicine,” recalls Dr. Kavanagh-Gray, now a retired cardiologist, from her home in Vancouver. “He admired my perseverance and said, ‘All right, I accept you!’”

Dr. Kavanagh-Gray became one of only two women in the Faculty of Medicine’s class of 1954.

“We were rather oddities,” she says—but adds, “I was quite accepted among the class full of men.”

Looking back, she is proud of her role, however small, in shaping women’s success in today’s medical landscape.

Doris and her sister were born in the 1930s to the Kavanagh family, who had no sons. Seeing the preferential treatment boys received in other families—especially those that were not well off—Doris grew to appreciate being one of only two girls.

“My father focused a lot of attention on me, but I don’t know that he would have if there had been a son in the family,” she reflects. “He was very bright, and impressed upon me the need to achieve, to not follow the crowd—if I wanted something, to go after it with perseverance.”

Her parents were pleased when she got into medical school, says Dr. Kavanagh-Gray. Since the family lived in Ottawa, “it was not terribly expensive because I could live at home.”

She and John Gray, a fellow medical student, planned to marry during their studies.

You’re making a terrible mistake, said Dean Richard at the time; no residency will accept you.

“We married anyway,” she laughs.

As it happened, Dr. Kavanagh-Gray had no trouble getting into residency. The couple went to the United States for their training, with John in surgery, and Doris choosing cardiology after meeting excellent teachers.

“I can’t recall one of my teachers as being a woman,” she says, “likely because the change was only just starting—that of women entering the medical profession.”

In the fifth year of her medical training at the University of Ottawa, she became pregnant—again inviting rebukes from her superiors.

 “Taking time for pregnancy and childcare was frowned upon, because both men and women were expected to devote 24-7 to medical training,” she says. “But at the end of the day, women simply needed that time.

“I believe this is one reason that today, there is an acceptance that there is another side of life than medicine. As a consequence, men too have benefitted from women’s desire to take time away from medicine to handle life’s challenges.”

As she progressed in her career, Dr. Kavanagh-Gray noticed a change in patients’ perceptions of women doctors. When patients were referred to her early in her career, particularly men, they would exclaim, ‘But you’re a woman!’—but this dissipated over time.

“I began to hear men say, ‘Isn’t there a woman I can see?’” says Dr. Kavanagh-Gray. “Many patients now actively seek women to look after them.

“Medicine is a caring profession, and is amply suited to women and their attributes,” she continues. “Years ago, I was one of two in my class, but it’s a very different story today.”

Case in point: Dr. Kavanagh-Gray’s daughter Cynthia is a gynecologist in Toronto, and her granddaughter, a plastic surgeon in Calgary.

“I expect I influenced Cynthia to enter medicine,” she says. “With both myself and my husband in the medical field, much of the conversation around the dinner table centred around that.”

To young women considering studying medicine, Dr. Kavanagh-Gray encourages them to dream big. She recalls many friends who could have achieved much more, but were held back by people warning them that it would be ‘too hard’.

“Don’t listen to them if that is your dream,” she insists.  “I say, just go for it!”

Read Dr. Doris Kavanagh-Gray’s essay "Accident Insurance" (pdf, 87.41 KB), as it appeared in the Faculty of Medicine’s “Memories 1945-1975” publication.


Main photo: In addition to dancing, Dr. Kavanagh-Gray is an avid gardener. Here, she shows off her back yard in the summer of 2019.

A graduation photo of Doris Kavanagh-Gray and John Gray

Graduation photos of Doris Kavanagh-Gray and John Gray.

Photo of Doris Kavanagh-Gray, her husband John Gray and baby Cynthia.

Doris Kavanagh-Gray holding baby Cynthia in 1953 with husband John Gray. Photo credit : University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine

A group of people in an operating room.

Dr. Kavanagh-Gray (centre) prepares a cardiac patient for surgery in 1959. Photo credit : St. Paul's Foundation

A man and a woman dancing the tango

At the age of 90, alumna Dr. Kavanagh-Gray pursues many interests, among them dancing. Here, she performs the tango with a partner in a dance competition at the age of 86 in 2016. Photo credit : Cynthia Nicholas


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