In Memory of Dr. Bette Stephenson 1924–2019

August 21, 2019

Dr. Bette Stephenson In 1929, at the age of five, Bette Stephenson decided she wanted to become a doctor. She was told that women could be nurses but not doctors—perhaps that only served as inspiration for her to prove those individuals wrong and pursue her dream. That determination remained with her throughout her 95 years and led to numerous personal and professional achievements and firsts. Dr. Bette Stephenson passed away on August 19, 2019, in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Dr. Stephenson was one of the first women to attend medical school at the University of Toronto in the 1940s. After graduating, she and her husband, Dr. Allan Pengelly, were dedicated family doctors who ran a busy practice for more than 40 years while raising six children. Her career also included roles as Director of the Outpatient Department and Chief of the Department of General Practice at Women's College Hospital, and a member of the medical staff at North York General Hospital.

In 1954 Dr. Stephenson was actively involved as a founding member of the College of General Practice in Canada, now the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC). She achieved her Fellowship in the CFPC in 1989 and became a Life Member in 1994. Despite the male dominance in medicine in the 1960s and 1970s, she became chair of the CFPC’s Committee on Education. In that role she chaired three national conferences that laid the groundwork for family medicine residency training and certification in Canada.

Dr. Stephenson was the first woman to serve on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Medical Association and the Ontario Medical Association. She was also the first female president of both associations.

With an interest in politics, she was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1975 and was the first female to hold various distinguished offices, including Minister of Education, Minister of Colleges and Universities, Minister of Finance/Treasurer, and Deputy Premier. She quickly earned a reputation for her strong will and determination. She was known as a force to be reckoned with!

Her strength to deal effectively with the sexist work environment of the 1960s and 1970s was clearly reflected in a 1970 quote: “I never feel masculine, and the last thing I would want is to be a man. I don’t like to be told that I think like a man, because men don’t have the corner on cerebral activity.”

In addition to her medical and political careers, Dr. Stephenson helped promote medical research in Canada including the development of the Ontario Research Development Challenge Fund and the MaRS Discovery District. She is a founding member of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research and a trustee of the Ontario Innovation Trust.

Dr. Stephenson’s passion blazed the trail for many women to pursue leadership roles in medicine, education, research, and politics. She was honoured with numerous awards throughout her career and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1992 and to the Order of Ontario in 1999. She was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2013.

Her husband, Dr. Pengelly, passed away in 2013.

The College extends sincere condolences to Dr. Stephenson’s family.

Obituary of Dr. Bette Stephenson


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