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Celebrating 85 Years: Who was Barbara Blackstock Cody?

April 14, 2010
Two black and white photos of VHA's founder Barbara Blackstock Cody.

“..We all learned from her that a lady is someone who gets on her hands and knees and scrubs the floor, someone who does whatever she is doing well.”
– Sheila Connell, Barbara’s niece.

VHA’s celebrated founder was many things: a maternal feminist, a beloved aunt, a loving wife and an immensely important social reform figure in Toronto. As woman from a well-to-do family in the early twentieth century, Barbara Blackstock Cody challenged many of the social limits of her time.

Her first exposure to the charitable life was with her grandfather George Gooderham of Gooderham and Worts. Besides making generous donations to the Toronto General Hospital, he liked to regularly visit patients with Barbara. This may have given her that first sense of duty and a greater understanding of her privileged life. Her awareness only increased after a monumental drive across India with her sister and aunt–the first women ever to drive across the country. Barbara also grew up surrounded by other socially-conscious family members including a great aunt who was one of the founders of the National Council of Women and the Women’s College Hospital.

Despite her long and successful career, as a cloistered Victorian girl, Barbara wasn’t able to attend school –which was said to be her greatest regret in life. It wasn’t until Barbara, stuck in England because of the travel restrictions of WWI, found her calling as a wartime nurse. She had an obvious gift for nursing and was recommended to attend the London Hospital for further training. Ironically, the war proved to be a liberating experience for Barbara and she came to the realization that she could no longer be satisfied living the narrow and confined life expected of her. Her quest for education continued when Barbara returned to Canada and graduated from the first Public Health Nursing class at the University of Toronto in 1921.

As a young nurse, she cared for the Toronto east side by completing her rounds on a bicycle. She couldn’t be stopped despite the fact that nursing wasn’t considered a respected profession for girls from upper class families. She pedaled on and in her extraordinary career served as President of the Florence Nightingale International Fund, Secretary of the Infant Home, Founding President of Visiting Homemakers Association, Chairman of the Child Welfare Council in Toronto, Executive Member of the National Council of Women in Canada, Vice-President of the Local Council of Women and was awarded an Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship in 1977.

At 41 she married Dr. Canon Cody, an old family friend and president of the University of Toronto from 1932-1944. Together they became a formidable philanthropic couple in Toronto.

Barbara served as VHA’s President for 35 years, until the age of 68 and remained involved with the agency —even using VHA services herself until her death. As a testament to her strong-will and dedication, Barbara kept driving for years and years and years when, to the horror of her family, she just kept passing those driving tests.

Barbara passed away on September 2, 1980 at 88 years old after a full life deeply committed to public health and welfare. She managed to step outside of her background and used her natural talent and ability to make a significant change in the lives of many. Barbara Blackstock was a true ambassador of everything we continue to strive for as an organization today: she is our respected foremother and visionary.

Information and quotes collected from the essay: Barbara Blackstock Cody: Social Welfare Reformer, by Carole Sander, 1986.