Marguerite (Peggy) Hill was a leader in her profession during a time when female doctors were an anomaly. But she did not consider herself a feminist. She thought gender was irrelevant to success, a belief that was supported by her own stellar achievements. Upon graduation from the University of Toronto she received a gold medal given to the medical student with the highest standing. She found it merely amusing that a newspaper commended a male doctor from her year for graduating as the highest man in his class. In 1957 she achieved another first for a woman; she was appointed chief resident at Toronto General Hospital.
F. Marguerite Hill was born in Toronto on May 24, 1919, in the Lawrence Park house in which she would spend her entire life. The F. stood for Florence, a name she disliked. Her father, Frederick, a prosperous businessman, got his start selling wheat. His first wife died in childbirth leaving him with two daughters. He then married Marguerite's mother, an American named Gertrude Mary Spragg. Frederick loved nature, often accompanying his youngest child on long walks in which he would name various birds and flowers. As an adult, Hill became a keen birdwatcher, travelling the world to tick birds off her ornithological list.
When she was 16, her parents made her contribute financially to her room and board, a demand that encouraged self-sufficiency and independence. Tall and willowy, Hill excelled in school, both as an athlete and an academic. While attending North Toronto High School she encountered Marion Hilliard, a female obstetrician from Women's College Hospital, who had been invited to speak. The doctor left a lasting impression on Hill, who credits the talk with influencing her decision to go into medicine. Her family, however, didn't feel the profession was appropriate for a woman, and the education was considered too expensive. Hill contented herself with applying a scholarship toward studying psychology at the University of Toronto.
In those days, female students attending the patriarchal institution wore hats and gloves and were excluded from Hart House, the student centre. Hill said, "I think we all resented that the men had such a splendid place. But actually we didn't get in it so we didn't know the full extent of what we were missing."
After graduating with a masters in psychology in 1941, Hill joined the Canadian Women's Army Medical Corps where she was in charge of personnel selection. She was one of the few women psychologists to serve overseas. Back in Canada, as a veteran, Hill was entitled to free education: A career in medicine was now within grasp.
Hill returned to U of T as one of 10 women in a class of 200. Women students were segregated from men during classes in anatomy and pathology. In her biography, A Life of Teaching and Healing, author Michael Bliss quotes her as saying: "At St. Michael's Hospital we [the women]weren't allowed into the delivery room. We were allowed into the operating room and I remember the nurses had to turn with their backs to the male patients on the operating table and would hand the instruments over their backs to the physicians."
During her third year of study, Hill chose to do her internship at Toronto General. She lived in the nurses' residence as there was no accommodation for women in the interns' quarters. She worked long gruelling hours under intense pressure for $25 a month, but she never complained.
She felt that patients liked female doctors more than men. "I think we listened more. We were more conscientious. We were hard working. We weren't there for the fun, whereas sometimes I had the impression from some of the other boys that they were there for a good time … to party it up."
Following graduation from medical school, Hill completed five years of postgraduate work in internal medicine, specializing in kidney disease. In 1968 she was promoted to full professor in the Faculty of Medicine at her alma mater. In the same year, she left Toronto General to join Women's College Hospital as a teacher, clinician and researcher. She chose the facility because it was small and intimate.
After Women's College was designated as a teaching hospital, Hill served as its physician-in-chief of medicine, the second woman in the history of a U of T teaching hospital to do so. Under her leadership, WCH began working co-operatively with other hospitals setting up a three-hospital diabetic unit, a respiratory service and a renal service. Hill supported a Cirrhosis Education and Research Centre, a 24-hour Rape and Sexual Assault Centre and the first birth control centre in Toronto.
Despite her daunting credentials, Hill found dealing with various chiefs of medicine at the University a challenge. She recalls an initial meeting with one chief who told her, "I don't like working with women, they cry." Despite this pronouncement, they maintained a friendly relationship, at least on the surface. "He learned that I didn't cry," she was quoted as saying in the biography.
Inevitably, Hill had to deal with death and the terminally ill, something she found difficult. Her concern was always for the dignity and comfort of patients. "I have had patients sign living wills for a long time and my own is signed which says no emergency measures are to be used if they are not going to be of any use," she said.
Despite the risk of exposure, Hill was a maverick who had no compunction about helping the terminally ill die in comfort. " In terms of active euthanasia, certainly I have given extra morphine when they were at the very end. When they are going to die in six hours, now they'll die in four hours."
Despite a heavy load of administrative and teaching duties, Hill maintained an active practice. She had no husband or children to demand her time, and she routinely worked long hours.
Hill was disciplined to the point of stoicism. A shy personality, she kept her wry sense of humour hidden until she felt comfortable enough to reveal it. She inspired admiration and occasionally evoked terror in her interns. She demanded of them no less than she demanded of herself.
The list of medical boards and committees on which Hill served until her retirement in 1984 is a long one. In a departure from medical activities, she became the first women to serve on the board of CIBC.
Several times a year, Hill took adventurous trips around the world. Her frequent companion was her close friend Shirley Flemming, also a doctor. The two women spent so many summers on Baffin Island that a waterfall there is named the "Peggy and Shirley Falls."
Hill hated shopping. She adored the Toronto Blue Jays, boating, snorkelling, the raspberry bushes and roses in her well-tended garden, knitting, reading and bridge. She was quietly thrilled when Women's College Hospital set up a fund in her name. Today, innovators in women's health present their findings at the annual F.M. Hill lecture at Women's College Hospital.
In 1994, Hill was named to The Order of Canada for her efforts in teaching and patient care. "She didn't care much about recognition," says friend Lesley Pinder. "It was all about her work. Her patients loved her."
Marguerite Hill died at home on Jan. 15 at the age of 93. She leaves a niece, Patricia Smyth.
Special to The Globe and Mail