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Dr. Lillian Chase

The Actively Outspoken: Dr. Lillian Chase 

“There are three problems to be considered in controlling diabetes. (1) Can we prevent its development? (2) When it develops can we find it early? (3) Whether we find it early or late can we control the disease so that the patient has a normal life ? […] Any disease that is tenth in the causes of death and which is increasing and will be likely to increase deserves more time and care in the medical curriculum.”

Dr. Lillian A. Chase, “Diabetes Mellitus: Problems of its Control” in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, (March, 1941).
Photograph of Lillian Chase as a young woman. Acadia University.

Lillian Chase was born in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia in 1894. The daughter of a school teacher from Toronto and a valley farmer who graduated from the Ontario Agricultural College, Lillian was a studious and athletic child. She attended Wolfville School during her early years and joined the hockey and basketball teams from Port Williams. These teams were located just across the Cornwallis River from Wolfville, allowing Lillian the opportunity to frequently compete against her younger sister, Sue.[1] Lillian also played tennis competitively as a young girl.

In 1912, Lillian, now 18 years old, enrolled at Acadia University, where she was active in student government, literary societies, and was an editor of Athenaeum, the student magazine.[2] Lillian was still an avid hockey and basketball player, and quickly joined the Acadia women’s teams. She led her teammates in extra-league competitions and “set the standard for female Acadia athletes.”[3] To promote the success of these athletes, the April 1914 edition of Athenaeum reported “The playing of hockey by college girls is a new thing at Acadia. Much interest has been taken in it by everyone connected with the college, and when it was announced there was to be a public game on March 5, all made a special effort to be present….The girls surprised the spectators by their clever work.”[4] Lillian was one of the “outstanding women in the class of 1916” – a class where more than half of the women went on to have careers, which was an impressively high employment rate for female graduates at the time.[5]

At the time of their graduation (from Acadia University), classmates of ’16 on the lawn of the president’s house where the library is now. From left, Lillian Chase, Esther Clark Wright, Bessie Lockhart and Hettie Chute. Esther Clark Wright, “Miss Chase, Miss Chute, Miss Clarke” in The Acadia Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 72, Iss. 1 (1987/1988 Winter).

Upon graduating from Acadia, Lillian stayed home for a year and taught in the one-room school where her other sister, Margaret, was a grade three pupil. Lillian was vocal in her dislike of teaching, which compelled her mother, whose sister had been a missionary doctor in China, to ask “Why don’t you study medicine?”[6] Before her family knew it, Lillian, who had been an ardent missionary volunteer in college, had enrolled at the University of Toronto’s medical school. Lillian completed her degree in 1922. She then interned at medical clinics in Philadelphia as well as Toronto General Hospital, where she was able to observe the work of the hospital’s new diabetic clinic. Her professor, Dr. McPhedran, presented a 14-year diabetic boy named Leonard Thompson to her class and it was at this moment that Lillian witnessed one of the first administrations of insulin to a human. Lillian later reflected back on this moment in her 1941 paper “Diabetes Mellitus: Problems of its Control”, stating:

“EIGHTEEN years ago last spring I saw the first child who ever had insulin. The late Professor McPhedran presented to his fifth year medical class of which I was a member a little diabetic boy who, in addition to the usual dietetic treatment had had two doses of “Banting’s fluid”. I should like to be able to say that we all realized that we were in the presence of a great discovery. On the contrary, with the usual barbarous ignorance of youth, we had our minds more on the time for the Saturday noon bell than on anything that our professor was telling us. It was not until later that we realized that the occasion had been historic.”[7]

Lillian was so fascinated by the experience that she went on to complete her post-graduate studies in the research of diabetes at the University of Rochester’s school of medicine in New York.

Her firsthand, in depth knowledge of the new diabetes treatment granted her many work opportunities, but she eventually set up a general practice in Regina, Saskatchewan from 1925 to 1942. Lillian’s practice persevered through the Great Depression, which is noted as having severely impacted the West. Nonetheless, her years at Toronto had “coincided with the discovery and development of insulin, and she was called by Saskatchewan doctors to advise on their diabetes patients.”[8] Lillian earned a good and prestigious reputation throughout the province and she often used her free time to lecture and mentor nursing students, as well as to give talks to women in the area.[9] Her ambition to teach these young women demonstrates her evolution as a medical professional, as it stands in stark contrast to her earlier dislike of teaching when she once said she would “rather scrub floors for a living.”[10] In 1932, she was elected the first female president of the Regina General Hospital.[11]

When the Second World War was declared in 1939, Lillian knew she had a duty as a medically trained Canadian to assist in any way she could. Lillian therefore joined the Royal Canadian Medical Corps (RCMC) in 1942, while also continuing her work with diabetics. During her three years in the RCMC, she sailed to and from England caring for men aboard troop ships and also worked at Sunnybrook Hospital.[12] Treating the sick and wounded Canadian soldiers in contrast with witnessing the miracles of insulin was a uniquely paradoxical perspective not lost on Lillian, as she is quoted in 1941 stating: “I tell the diabetic boys, now that their contemporaries will be decimated by war, it is up to them to get a good education and be prepared to help run the country.”[13]

When the war was finally over in 1945, Lillian began specializing in internal medicine for hospitals throughout Toronto and joined the staff at Women’s College Hospital (WCH). With the department of medicine, she conducted weekly diabetic clinics through the hospital’s outpatient department and, concerned that many diabetics did not understand the disease, she taught patients about their condition as they waited for their laboratory results.[14]

Lillian was an outspoken individual who did not shy away from being frank and sharing her thoughts liberally. On the subject of restricting a Canadian woman’s diet, she said:

“The average Canadian woman who does her own housework no sooner gets the dishes washed after one meal than she has to begin thinking about the next. Food is a very important part of her life. After feeding her family one of her chief recreations is attending teas in other people’s homes. Dressing up the dining table with candles and flowers, crocheted table cloth, and delicious looking cakes is the great Canadian winter sport. The doctor who cuts this out of a woman’s life, not because she has diabetes but because her great aunt had it, must be very convincing! And the woman who listens to the doctor will have to face social unpopularity; no hostess wants to slave half a day on a sugar and whipped cream confection only to have her guests say “No thank you”. These afternoon teas are to the women what stag poker parties are to the men, an institution not to be lightly interfered with.”[15]

Although a humorous passage on the surface, it also illustrates a woman’s perceived role at the time, both socially and in the home. It also makes note of food as being an important part of the Canadian social identity and, therefore, an exclusionary experience for a diabetic. Lillian was also one of the first medical professionals to link diabetes with lower income communities, which went against the accepted perception suggesting that mainly wealthy people suffered from the disease. Lillian argued:

[Dr. Elliot P.] Joslin has a theory that luxurious living produces diabetes. He says ‘wherever and whenever conditions of life are easy, food abundant and relatively cheap over long periods, and when large numbers of individuals become accustomed to partake of food in excess of their requirements for the expenditure of energy, the frequent development of overweight and diabetes is favoured’. This is an attractive theory, and would seem to fit facts in Canada. Wealthy Ontario has a high diabetic death rate; poverty stricken Saskatchewan has a low rate. But I do not believe this theory is true. Diabetes is not confined to the well-to-do. It is the rich woman who can afford to employ others to do her routine work, while she keeps her weight down on the Badminton courts and on the golf course. The rich can afford lettuce and tomatoes and fruit, while the poor must eat bread and porridge and potatoes and salt pork. Low calorie foods which are tasty and satisfying are expensive.”[16]

Dr. Lillian Chase in her later years. The Miss Margaret Robins Archives, Women’s College Hospital.

Lillian earned further distinction by becoming a founding member of the Canadian Diabetes Association, formed in 1953 (later becoming Diabetes Canada in 2017).[17] In 1967, she was named a Senior Member of the Canadian Medical Association and in 1969 she was given an honorary doctorate of science from her alma mater, Acadia University. Soon after, Lillian went into retirement, affording her the opportunity to spend time with the closest members of her family – her nieces and nephews from her siblings Margaret (Mary), Sue, and Robert.[18] Lillian was never married or had children of her own because she was a young woman of marriageable age when the First World War broke out, causing most eligible men in her area to go to war. By the war’s end, she was fully engaged to her work and her practice, and the subsequent Depression and Second World War only deepened her resolve. Lillian was committed to her medical pursuits and was content in the family life she had with her siblings and her nieces and nephews, who she regarded as her “legacies.” [19] Dr. Lillian Chase died in Ottawa on August 28, 1987, two months after her 93rd birthday.

“A Farmette (Lillian Chase), as least as far as the costume goes. Summer 1918” Acadia Unversity Archives, accession # 1969.002-LOC/22.
“Mrs. Chute, Hettie, Ruth Nordforth, Lillian, Lalia driving her car. Delightful summer reunions when Acadia girls is home in holiday hive.” Acadia University Archives, accession # 1969.002-LOC/22.
Bessie Lockhart took this photograph of Esther Clark, left, and Lillian Chase. The Acadia Alumni Bulletin, Acadia University Archives, Vol. 72, Iss. 1 (1987/1988 Winter).

[1]  “Lillian Chase, ‘16” in Voices of Acadia (Vol. III, April, 2020), https://www2.acadiau.ca/alumni-friends/alumni/news/alumni-spotlight/alumni-spotlight-reader/voices-of-acadia-lillian-chase-16.html

[2] “Lillian Alice Chase: Chase Plays Chase” in Turn Out and Cheer! Sports in Wolfville, 1870-1950, Female Athletes, (2006), https://library.acadiau.ca/files/sites/archives/special_projects/sporthistory/athletes/female/chase.html.

[3] “Lillian Alice Chase: Chase Plays Chase” in Turn Out and Cheer! Sports in Wolfville, 1870-1950, Female Athletes, (2006), https://library.acadiau.ca/files/sites/archives/special_projects/sporthistory/athletes/female/chase.html.

[4] “Lillian Alice Chase: Chase Plays Chase” in Turn Out and Cheer! Sports in Wolfville, 1870-1950, Female Athletes, (2006), https://library.acadiau.ca/files/sites/archives/special_projects/sporthistory/athletes/female/chase.html.

[5] “Lillian Alice Chase: Chase Plays Chase” in Turn Out and Cheer! Sports in Wolfville, 1870-1950, Female Athletes, (2006), https://library.acadiau.ca/files/sites/archives/special_projects/sporthistory/athletes/female/chase.html.

[6] Esther Clark Wright, “Miss Chase, Miss Chute, Miss Clarke” in The Acadia Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 72, Iss. 1 (1987/1988 Winter), https://archives.acadiau.ca/islandora/object/special%3A301.

[7] Lillian A. Chase, “Diabetes Mellitus: Problems of its Control” in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, (March, 1941), p. 250-255, https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1826722&blobtype=pdf.

[8] Esther Clark Wright, “Miss Chase, Miss Chute, Miss Clarke” in The Acadia Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 72, Iss. 1 (1987/1988 Winter), https://archives.acadiau.ca/islandora/object/special%3A301.

[9]  “Lillian Chase, ‘16” in Voices of Acadia (Vol. III, April, 2020), https://www2.acadiau.ca/alumni-friends/alumni/news/alumni-spotlight/alumni-spotlight-reader/voices-of-acadia-lillian-chase-16.html and Fay Hutchinson, “Chase, Lillian (ca. 1894-1987)”, University of Regina and Canadian Plains Research Center (2007), https://esask.uregina.ca/tmc_cms/modules/customcode/includes/print_entry.cfm-entryid=73457E8F-1560-95DA-43A561E233D68192.jsp.

[10] Esther Clark Wright, “Miss Chase, Miss Chute, Miss Clarke” in The Acadia Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 72, Iss. 1 (1987/1988 Winter), https://archives.acadiau.ca/islandora/object/special%3A301.

[11]  “Lillian Chase, ‘16” in Voices of Acadia (Vol. III, April, 2020), https://www2.acadiau.ca/alumni-friends/alumni/news/alumni-spotlight/alumni-spotlight-reader/voices-of-acadia-lillian-chase-16.html

[12] Esther Clark Wright, “Miss Chase, Miss Chute, Miss Clarke” in The Acadia Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 72, Iss. 1 (1987/1988 Winter), https://archives.acadiau.ca/islandora/object/special%3A301.

[13] Lillian A. Chase, “Diabetes Mellitus: Problems of its Control” in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, (March, 1941), p. 250-255, https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1826722&blobtype=pdf.

[14] Heather Gardiner, “The History of Diabetes Care at Women’s College Hospital” in Connect: Women’s College Hospital Publication, (November 16, 2017), https://www.womenscollegehospital.ca/news-and-publications/Connect-2017/the-history-of-diabetes-care-at-womens-college-hospital

[15] Lillian A. Chase, “Diabetes Mellitus: Problems of its Control” in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, (March, 1941), p. 250-255, https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1826722&blobtype=pdf.

[16] Lillian A. Chase, “Diabetes Mellitus: Problems of its Control” in The Canadian Medical Association Journal, (March, 1941), p. 250-255, https://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1826722&blobtype=pdf.

[17] “Lillian Chase, ‘16” in Voices of Acadia (Vol. III, April, 2020), https://www2.acadiau.ca/alumni-friends/alumni/news/alumni-spotlight/alumni-spotlight-reader/voices-of-acadia-lillian-chase-16.html

[18]  Esther Clark Wright, “Miss Chase, Miss Chute, Miss Clarke” in The Acadia Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 72, Iss. 1 (1987/1988 Winter), https://archives.acadiau.ca/islandora/object/special%3A301.

[19] Fay Hutchinson, “Chase, Lillian (ca. 1894-1987)”, University of Regina and Canadian Plains Research Center (2007), https://esask.uregina.ca/tmc_cms/modules/customcode/includes/print_entry.cfm-entryid=73457E8F-1560-95DA-43A561E233D68192.jsp.