Before Taussig: Maude Abbott

Maude Abbott was born in 1869 in a small town in  Quebec, Canada. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, she applied to McGill’s medical school. Like most medical schools of the 1890’s, McGill did not accept female students into its medical school.

Maude applied to Bishop’s College (Now Bishop’s University) and with a little arm twisting, was admitted to the medical program. She graduated in 1894 as the only woman in her class.

She hit the road after graduating in 1897, studying medicine all over Europe. Returning to Montreal, she set up her own practice. It wasn’t long before a colleague offered her a position doing research at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Her research on heart murmurs was accepted by a Montreal medical society, but a male doctor had to present her paper because women were not allowed to join the society.

She applied to McGill for a teaching position in 1899. While not ready to hire a female teacher, McGill wanted her bad enough that they felt they had to offer her something… so she was named assistant curator at the McGill Medical Museum.

A turn of the century medical museum was an important tool. Organs, body systems, and even entire bodies were preserved and kept in the museum. Without many of the visual aids used today, medical students often found themselves at the museum, studying the inner workings of the body. A well stocked medical museum also featured deformed organs – sometimes the stranger the better. Doctors just didn’t get to see such things that often, so if possible, obtaining a deformed organ was very valuable. It would strike most people as more than a little disturbing, but that is the way it was done.

A heart specialist with an entire medical museum at her command, Maude began requesting defective hearts. It wasn’t long before she had plenty – there was no way to correct a heart defect, so no one really had any reason to keep them. Although she had no way to repair a defective heart, Maude studied her samples and tried to figure out exactly what was wrong with them. If she could, she would classify them and group them together by their similarities.

During her first few years at McGill, Maude was in Washington, DC and met Dr. William Osler – another Canadian doctor who was turning Johns Hopkins University into the premier United States medical school. He was also working on a major book about medicine and invited Abbott to write the chapter on Congenital Heart Defects. When it was published in 1907 she was recognized as the leading authority on defective hearts. In 1936, she published her greatest work: The Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease. Maude Abbott passed away in September of 1940, four years before Alfred Blalock, Helen Taussig, and Vivien Thomas attempted to correct a Congenital Heart Defect with surgery.

It had to be frustrating – although Maude was learning what was wrong with the hearts and how it affected the body, she could offer no way to correct them. Little did she know (or perhaps she did know) that she was laying the groundwork for people who would come later – people who had actually developed ways to fix broken hearts and would look back to Maude Abbott’s work as their guide.

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2 Responses to “Before Taussig: Maude Abbott”

  1. Kelly Says:

    Thanks for bringing her story to us Steve…what a warrior

  2. Katie Says:

    I love reading these heart history stories!!!

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