In 1889 Maude Abbott's application to study medicine at her undergraduate alma mater, McGill University, was rejected, because school policy barred women until 1917. Instead she earned her doctor of medicine degree from Bishop's Medical College of Montreal, Canada, and later earned worldwide recognition for her research on heart disease. The heart disease classification system she developed became the standard reference guide and was useful in the development of many innovations in cardiology, such as the operation to cure "blue baby syndrome," developed by Helen Taussig, M.D., Alfred Blalock, M.D., and surgical technician Vivien Thomas.
Born Maude Babin in St. Andrew's East, Quebec, Maude Abbott was abandoned by her father and orphaned at seven months of age when her mother died of tuberculosis. Her maternal grandmother, Mrs. William Abbott, adopted her and her surname was changed to Abbott.
Early in life, Maude Elizabeth Seymour Abbott showed ambition for a career in medicine. While still an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, she asked her grandmother if she might become a doctor. Her grandmother replied, "Dear child, you may do anything you like." In spite of intervention on her behalf from a relativeJohn Abbott, a McGill graduate who had been dean of its law faculty from 1855 to 1880she was prevented from entering McGill Medical School because she was a woman, a typical barrier for the times.
With the encouragement of Dr. William Osler, a physician who taught at McGill, Abbott launched a public campaign to offer medical courses for women at the university. Though her cause was supported in the public press, it went unfulfilled at McGill. Undaunted, she sought admission to Bishop's.
Abbott was the only woman in her class at Bishop's Medical College, one of the first Canadian universities to admit women as medical students. She graduated in 1894 with the Chancellor's Prize and Senior Anatomy Prize, and several years later, following post-doctoral studies in Europe, she set up practice in Montreal. Gradually, she earned great professional respect for her work on cirrhosis and heart murmurs, and was even accepted into the all-male Medico-Chirurgical Society.
In 1898, Dr. Abbott won an appointment at McGill as assistant curator, then curator, of the university's medical museum, where she developed a classification system for thousands of uncatalogued medical specimens, including heart defects. Her work and demonstrations became so popular that they became a compulsory part of the school's curriculum.
When Dr. William Osler, a widely respected Canadian pathologist and professor of medicine, was preparing his System of Medicine in 1908, he asked Abbott to write a chapter on congenital heart disease. She based her groundbreaking article on findings of more than 400 cases. "It is by far and away the very best thing ever written on the subject in English, possibly any language," Osler noted in 1910. McGill University later acknowledged her achievements with an assistant professorship and an honorary degree in 1910, though it was another eight years before women were admitted to the medical school.
By the end of her career, Dr. Maude Abbott's publications numbered more than one hundred. Her Atlas of Congenital Heart Disease, published in 1936, described a thousand cases and became the basis of information about modern heart surgery. In 1936, at Dr. Abbott's retirement, McGill awarded her a second honorary degree, recognizing her as both a teacher and scientific investigator.