Rehabilitation pioneers: Paving the way for women in health-care

UAlberta's first physical therapy class returns for Alumni Weekend and their 60th Diamond Reunion

Amy Knezevich - 23 September 2016

Excerpts from "Rehabilitation Pioneers" by Elaine Roberts

When Elaine Roberts' mother showed her an article in the Edmonton Journal about the new University of Alberta physiotherapy program back in 1954, she didn't realize that her daughter would go on to become a "pioneer in rehabilitation," paving the way for women in a new health-care field.

"The profs were all men," says Roberts, 81. "The anatomy professors were wonderful. They had never taught anatomy to women before. There were no women in medicine or dentistry in 1954. We, and they, were pioneers."

Roberts and 11 other members of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine's Physical Therapy (PT) Class of 1956 are returning to the University of Alberta this Alumni Weekend to celebrate their 60th Diamond Reunion. They will attend the Dean's Alumni Luncheon alongside more than 70 returning alumni from PT, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology and rehabilitation science. Now the only free-standing faculty of rehabilitation in North America with 7000 alumni, it's hard to believe the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine began with a group of 17 students.

The national polio epidemic peaked in Canada between 1949 and 1954. Because of the severity of the epidemic, which highlighted the acute shortage of qualified therapists in Alberta, it was decided that a rehabilitation training program should be established at the U of A as quickly as possible. Thus, in 1954, a 24-month diploma program in physical therapy was created.

Roberts remembers that on the first day of class, she and her classmates were greeted by Nancy Rendell, a Canadian woman who had just completed her physiotherapy teacher's training in England and had come to be the instructor for all of the physiotherapy courses. Of the 17 students that started the program that morning, 15 went on to graduate.

Classes were held in a Quonset hut located behind the university residences, Assiniboia and Athabasca Halls. They began at 8 a.m., and the students had 37 hours a week of classwork and labs.

"Then there was the homework and the struggles to understand medical terminology which was totally foreign to me. Courses like anatomy, physiology, pathology, psychology and physics were taught by professors in their respective departments," explained Roberts.

After their first 8 months of classes, the students were assigned to internships in hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary, the Worker's Compensation Board Rehabilitation Clinic, the Cerebral Palsy Clinic and the mobile clinic of the Canadian Arthritis Society, where they worked under the supervision of qualified therapists.

"We even got paid for this, $50 a month. We were required to keep a log of the kinds of patients we saw and the kinds of treatments we administered, mostly for our own use so we could monitor and ask for what we needed. We were terrified at the prospect of treating real patients!" said Roberts.

In the second year of the program, Moyna Gordon arrived from England to assist Rendell with teaching, just as a second class of students started the program. Gordon specialized in teaching treatments for patients with respiratory conditions, and post-operative treatments. She also taught the students about a new electrotherapy modality, ultrasound, and a radically new treatment for neurological conditions, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.

A second summer of internships followed, and soon after, the first class of the physiotherapy program had finished. They convocated in November 1956.

"Dr. Fowler [first director of the School of Physiotherapy], Nancy Rendell and Moyna Gordon were all there bursting with pride at our accomplishments and their own," Roberts recalled.

After graduation, some of the students began to work immediately, six of them finding employment at the University of Alberta Hospital. These women were not done making strides in the profession, and things were quite different in 1956 compared to today's practice.

"My registration number at the Association of Physical Therapists of Alberta was number 49. My first monthly paycheque was $125," said Roberts.

"It was a time of white uniforms, white stockings, white shoes and, at the WCB, plain white nurses' caps! The starch in the uniform made movement difficult during the first hour or so of the day. And who could keep those caps on?" Shirley Allin Moar said. "It was a time when the doctor ordered the treatment and we just followed the orders. We physios had to persuade the doctor if we wanted to change the treatment. It was a long time before the standard order was 'assess and treat'."

"I was in private practice with an orthopedic surgeon as early as 1958. In the 60's, I was billing $4 per treatment!" Marianne Roberts said. "Women in the 50's never expected to work after they married and had children. For sure, after they had children. Some of us followed the traditional path, stopping work as a physical therapist after the birth of a child. Not stopping work, just stopping work for pay. Others never married and worked in hospitals, large and small, and in private practice in many parts of the country. Others were among the first women of the era to juggle work and family."

One alumna, Sue Fife, was among the first physiotherapists in Canada to earn her master's degree. She received an MSc from the University of Saskatchewan in 1972.

"Although I knew almost nothing of what physical therapy was about in 1954, it was a decision that shaped my life and made me who I am today," said Aline Baril McMillan. "I have been blessed and feel that my decision in 1954 to attend the University of Alberta was the best decision I have ever made."

The class continues to make a difference by inspiring future physical therapists. In 2006, they had a chance to give back to the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine through a class gift. They started the Physical Therapy Class of '56 Graduate Bursary, which supports a first year physical therapy student.

"It continues to be an honour and a delight to be a member of the Class of '56, the first class of physical therapists to graduate in Alberta. No longer women of the 50's, we are women of the 21st century, bringing with us the qualities that made us good therapists - adaptability, compassion, energy, enthusiasm and commitment," said Roberts.