The Story of Dr. Kenneth Fenwick and His Complex Legacy

Today, we’re looking at a story that may not be as inspiring as many that could be told. It is an important story nonetheless. This is the story of Dr. Kenneth Neander Fenwick (1852-1896), and the women from whom he sought to deprive a medical education.

Dr. Kenneth Neander Fenwick – Courtesy of James Low

Born in 1852 in Kingston, Ontario, he received a Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s University in 1871 before training with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons at Kingston and becoming house surgeon at the Kingston General Hospital in 1873. In 1876, Fenwick began working as a physiology professor at Queen’s Medical School, and in 1885 he was also made a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology. Though a brilliant and well-trained surgeon, he treated his female students, whom the university had granted admission to the medical program in 1880, quite poorly. In an 1882 lecture on the larynx, for instance Dr. Fenwick compared the pitch of women’s voices to that of an ape, which resulted in his female students marching out of his classroom.

Dr. Fenwick, alongside a group of other professors and male medical students, also argued that women’s attendance forced them to adjust their teachings to accommodate their “over-refined sensibilities.” Fenwick led a group of male students against the women and accused them of restricting their academic freedom. When the male students threatened to leave the school in droves, Queen’s University expelled the women. They were not allowed to return for 50 years, until 1943.

Mock Operation Fenwick Operating Theatre 1896 – Courtesy of KGH Archives

Although Dr. Fenwick was one of the leaders of a dark part of Queen’s University’s history, he should also be acknowledged for proposing, and largely funding the construction of an innovative surgical theatre at Kingston General Hospital, which opened in October 1895 and sat 100 medical students, facilitating their medical education. It remains Canada’s only remaining Victorian-era surgical amphitheatre.

Fenwick Operating Theatre at Kingston General Hospital, 1906 – Museum of Health Care 004004004

Dr. Fenwick was only able to use his operating theatre for three months. On January 16th, 1896, a small cut on his left hand became infected while he was performing surgery without gloves. He died only days later from septicemia (blood poisoning by bacteria), leaving behind his third wife whom he had married only six months previous.

To learn more about Kingston General Hospital and the stories connected to it, check out more of our Tell Me a Story Tuesday blog posts!

Kylie Meyerman<br>(Digital Content & Marketing Assistant 2022)
Kylie Meyerman
(Digital Content & Marketing Assistant 2022)

Kylie Meyerman is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Health Sciences at McMaster University, and plans to graduate in April 2024. This is her first time working at the museum, but she has been a long-time admirer. As a Canada Summer Jobs student this year, she is contributing to the creation and management of the museum’s online content.

Katrina Johnston <br>(Public Programs Assistant 2022)
Katrina Johnston
(Public Programs Assistant 2022)

Katrina Johnston received a Master’s degree in History from Queen’s University in 2021 and is currently an MA candidate in Classics.  As a student whose primary research focus is medical history she is delighted to have the opportunity to work at the Museum of Healthcare this summer. Katrina is excited to learn more about the long and intriguing history of medicine in Kingston, and as a public programs assistant she looks forward to highlighting some of these stories in blog posts and on public tours.  

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