The Daily Fight for Survival in the Children’s Ward: Dr. Gladys Boyd

“The expectation of life for the diabetic child has already been materially increased by insulin. […] Diabetes in children is a rapidly progressive disease, which may not only be arrested in its course, but made less severe under adequate treatment with diet and insulin”

Dr. Gladys Boyd, “Course and Prognosis of Diabetes Mellitus in Children” in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, (October, 1927).

Banting, Best, Collip, and MacLeod worked tirelessly in their labs, testing different variations of an extract they hoped would one day help to mediate the terminal effects of diabetes. Meanwhile, medical personnel in diabetic wards around the world were limited in their treatment options, resorting to starvation diets and helplessly watching their young patients wither away. At the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the daily work was being led by women and when the first injections of insulin were introduced, it was Dr. Gladys L. Boyd, one of Canada’s early female doctors, who assisted in the administration and subsequent care of the first recipients.[i]

Gladys Lillian Boyd graduated in 1918 from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. She had been the director of the Undergraduate Medical Women’s Council and was one of only four female graduates in a class of almost one hundred.[ii] In 1920, she earned a fellowship in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC) and a year later, she was appointed as head of its Endocrine Services.[iii] Endocrine disorders disrupt the network of glands that produce and release hormones, which help control many important body functions including the body’s ability to change calories into energy that powers cells and organs. It was while treating the child patients of her ward that Dr. Boyd began her research in the field of childhood diabetes, nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys) and tuberculosis.


The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, 1929. Toronto Public Library, Accession # tspa_0113248f.

Dr. Boyd was greatly influenced by the work of Dr. Banting and his team. The strides they had made in isolating the necessary extracts to formulate the beginning framework for insulin were truly astonishing and Dr. Boyd was eager to apply this new treatment in her ward. She learned of the success insulin was having in treating child patients such as Leonard Thompson, Teddy Ryder, Elizabeth Hughes, James Havens, Ruth Whitehill, and Myra Blaustein, and Dr. Boyd wasted no time in bringing the new extract to the HSC.

Dr. Boyd recognized the impact that the discovery of insulin could have on the lives of many of her patients, but one patient in particular stood out as an ideal early recipient: Elsie Needham. Boyd was twenty-eight years old and just four years out of medical school at the time she first met Elsie.[iv] It was October of 1922 and the 11 year old girl had been admitted to the HSC in a diabetic coma and near death. After several days of her condition showing no signs of improvement, Dr. Boyd reached out to Dr. Banting to request his aid and a vial of his new extract. With the assistance of Dr. Boyd, Dr. Banting administered the insulin injection to Elsie. To the astonishment and marvel of surrounding medical staff, the young girl rose to consciousness within a very short time of receiving the miracle drug. It was another great triumph for insulin, for Banting, and for Dr. Boyd.

The following year, in 1923, the Hospital for Sick Children convinced Dr. Banting to become an affiliated researcher and use their facilities in an effort to heighten the hospital’s notoriety.[v]  Dr. Banting worked alongside Dr. Boyd and their collaboration resulted in an “estimated fifty percent decrease in childhood mortality from diabetes over a ten-year period” at the hospital.[vi] Dr. Boyd had such an impact in her ward that she is credited with having begun endocrinology at the Hospital for Sick Children, and was the head of the Endocrine Service from 1921 to 1950.[vii]

Prior to Banting and Boyd officially working together, and all while continuing her research, Dr. Boyd joined the staff of Women’s College Hospital (WCH) as its chief of paediatrics in 1922. “As WCH’s only pediatrician, she attended to an average of two hundred children annually in the hospital’s outpatient department – diagnosing everything from common illnesses to complex childhood diseases.”[viii] It was Boyd’s clinical research during this period that gained her notoriety as an “early international authority in the area of diseases in children.”[ix]

In June, 1923, Boyd was invited to speak about her research at the first annual scientific meeting of the Society for the Study of Diseases of Children (later, the Canadian Paediatric Society) held in Montréal. As one of the first physicians in Canada to treat diabetic children with insulin, she shared her findings and reported “20 cases of diabetes treated in 1922 with insulin […] over a period of 8 months,” concluding that “[i]nsulin will probably not cure but arrests the course of the disease.”[x] In 1924, Boyd was awarded her Doctor of Medicine for which she wrote a research thesis that earned her Starr medal from the Canadian Medical Association. Boyd went on to author the “Manual for Diabetics” in 1925 – the standard consumer health manual for those with diabetes – as well as earn her Bachelor in Science (Medicine) in the same year.[xi] Over the next three decades, she continued her medical research and published numerous academic papers on the topic of childhood diabetes and nephritis. In 1931, Dr. Boyd was issued the designation of Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Canada (Division of Medicine) and Fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians in 1932 after acting as the attending physician to the Preventorium (an institution for patients infected with tuberculosis but who did not yet have an active form of the disease) sponsored by the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire.

The presence of women in medical wards during the 1920s is significant because of how rare female physicians were during that era. Dr. Gladys Boyd is among a small yet highly influential group of Canadian women who broke social barriers in pursuit of a career in medicine. Gladys never married, deciding instead to focus on her work and, later, raising her daughter Nancy, who she adopted as a newborn in 1932. Gladys was a devoted mother. When Nancy contracted Polio as a young child, Gladys ensured she received the best medical care possible. Nancy also attended some of the best schools in the country, including Havergal College for girls, the Royal Conservatory of Music Toronto, and Trinity College. Gladys prioritized her daughter’s education and was very encouraging of Nancy’s early and continuing passion for music, providing for her the best violin and piano teachers. Nancy went on to be an inspired teacher, adjudicator, and for decades coordinator of Daniel Pollack Master Classes for countless adult piano teachers and continuing students. These sacrifices made by Gladys for her daughter are even more impactful considering that Gladys was never a wealthy woman. She was never able to own a home, partly due to her status as an unmarried mother, and would often accept food or gifts in the place of payment when making housecalls or attending to patients in the hospital.[xii] Out of compassion for the woman and her daughter, a fellow doctor and his wife even let Gladys and Nancy use their cabin in northern Ontario every summer.


Dr. Gladys Boyd, later years. Photo courtesy of Dr. Gladys Boyd’s granddaughter, Wendy Saddler.

Despite Gladys’s precarious financial situation, she was a caring and charitable individual who earned the acts of generosity bestowed upon her. During the Second World War, she housed a young girl from England named Mavis who lived with her and Nancy for approximately six years.[xiii] Nancy and Mavis became instant friends, and remained “like sisters” until the end of their lives. Gladys may have also been involved with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), a worldwide organization that supports women in need by providing them with things such as food, better housing, education, and other forms of care.[xiv] Further still, her tireless and unwavering dedication to the study of childhood endocrine disorders has undoubtedly led to the survival of countless children and remains her most well-known contribution to society.

Dr. Boyd is mentioned several times in Frederick Banting’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, although the references are all fairly clinical. On the subject of Dr. Banting, Dr. Boyd is quoted as saying “[n]one of the praise that has been accorded to Dr. Banting for his wonderful work has been, at all exaggerated.”[xv] The same could be said for her. Dr. Gladys Boyd died in Toronto on October 24, 1970 at the age of 77. In recognition of her life, Dr. Boyd’s obituary reads “This devoted and modest woman was a good teacher, and generations of undergraduates will testify to her no-nonsense approach. Service to her patients, her hospital and her pro­fession dominated the life of Gladys Boyd, who deserves our grateful re­membrance.”


[i] David Wright, SickKids: The History of The Hospital for Sick Children, (Toronto: The Hospital for Sick Kids & University of Toronto Press, 2017), p. 120.

[ii] Heather Gardiner, “Dr. Gladys Boyd: A Pioneer in Childhood Diabetes Care” in Women’s College Hospital Foundation (November, 2018), https://www.womenscollegehospitalfoundation.com/News-Media/Blog/Nov-2018/Dr-Gladys-Boyd-a-pioneer-in-childhood-diabetes-c.aspx.

[iii] Heather Gardiner, “Dr. Gladys Boyd: A Pioneer in Childhood Diabetes Care” in Women’s College Hospital Foundation (November, 2018), https://www.womenscollegehospitalfoundation.com/News-Media/Blog/Nov-2018/Dr-Gladys-Boyd-a-pioneer-in-childhood-diabetes-c.aspx.

[iv] Edward Shorter, Partnership for Excellence: Medicine at the University of Toronto and Academic Hospitals, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, January, 2013), p. 264.

[v] David Wright, SickKids: The History of The Hospital for Sick Children, (Toronto: The Hospital for Sick Kids & University of Toronto Press, 2017), p. 120.

[vi] Heather Gardiner, “Dr. Gladys Boyd: A Pioneer in Childhood Diabetes Care” in Women’s College Hospital Foundation (November, 2018), https://www.womenscollegehospitalfoundation.com/News-Media/Blog/Nov-2018/Dr-Gladys-Boyd-a-pioneer-in-childhood-diabetes-c.aspx.

[vii] Edward Shorter, Partnership for Excellence: Medicine at the University of Toronto and Academic Hospitals, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, January, 2013), p. 264.

[viii] Heather Gardiner, “Dr. Gladys Boyd: A Pioneer in Childhood Diabetes Care” in Women’s College Hospital Foundation (November, 2018), https://www.womenscollegehospitalfoundation.com/News-Media/Blog/Nov-2018/Dr-Gladys-Boyd-a-pioneer-in-childhood-diabetes-c.aspx.

[ix] Heather Gardiner, “Dr. Gladys Boyd: A Pioneer in Childhood Diabetes Care” in Women’s College Hospital Foundation (November, 2018), https://www.womenscollegehospitalfoundation.com/News-Media/Blog/Nov-2018/Dr-Gladys-Boyd-a-pioneer-in-childhood-diabetes-c.aspx.

[x] Edward Shorter, Partnership for Excellence: Medicine at the University of Toronto and Academic Hospitals, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, January, 2013), p. 247.

[xi] Heather Gardiner, “Dr. Gladys Boyd: A Pioneer in Childhood Diabetes Care” in Women’s College Hospital Foundation (November, 2018), https://www.womenscollegehospitalfoundation.com/News-Media/Blog/Nov-2018/Dr-Gladys-Boyd-a-pioneer-in-childhood-diabetes-c.aspx.

[xii] Interview with Gladys Boyd’s granddaughter, Wendy Saddler.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] “SickKids Hospital Women History” in Heritage Toronto, https://www.heritagetoronto.org/explore-learn/toronto-women-history-rights/sickkids-hospital-women-history/.

[xv] “A Tribute to Dr. Banting” in The Glengarry News (Sept. 7, 1923), http://www.glengarrycountyarchives.ca/Glengarry_pdf/The-Glengarry-News/1921-1930/1923/Sep/09-07-1923.pdf.