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OPINION: N.S.’s first female doctor was also a pioneer in caring for the poor

Totally dedicated to the urgent medical needs of poor women and children, Dr. Maria Angwin directed her tireless efforts mainly to improving their health and well-being. She was also clearly an enlightened innovator since, long before it became an essential aspect of medical practice, she actively promoted preventive medicine.
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By DOROTHY GRANT

These days, medical school classes include many women, but for hundreds of years, this was considered unacceptable.

In fact, when Maria Angwin was born in Newfoundland in 1849, the idea of a woman becoming a physician was considered outrageous. But it was her destiny to play a significant role in fighting this prejudice.

Soon after her birth, Maria’s family moved to Nova Scotia and eventually established a permanent home in Dartmouth.

She was 19 when, in 1869, she graduated from the Wesleyan Ladies Academy at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. But, because the university did not award degrees to women until 1875, she was awarded a Mistress of Liberal Arts diploma.

At first, Maria considered becoming a lawyer, but gave up this idea because "lady lawyers were unknown and I didn't care about being a pioneer in that direction."

Another kind of "pioneering" pursuit, however, did catch her attention. This happened when she read a book about Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, two eminent American physicians. "I became convinced of the need for women doctors and I saw that earning my living that way, I could help my sex."

At that time, not a single Canadian medical school would accept female students. Nevertheless, Maria was determined to become a physician. To achieve this goal, she went to the Provincial Normal School in Truro and, in 1873, obtained a teacher's licence. For the next five years, she taught school.

Later she admitted, "I didn't like teaching. It didn't agree with my health. Like most other people, I made it a means to an end."

In 1879, with enough money to cover the cost of her tuition, she entered medicine at the Women's Medical College of New York Infirmary for Women and Children. It was one of the few American universities willing to accept female students.

In 1882, Maria received her M.D.

But before returning to Nova Scotia, she did a year of postgraduate work at the New England Hospital for Children and Women in Boston. During this period, her room and board were provided, but she didn’t earn any salary.

Following her year in Boston, she came home for a brief visit during the late summer. A young reporter from the Morning Herald, obviously convinced she would make for titillating news, arranged to interview her.

His instincts, it seems, were not mistaken since his story, featuring provocative headlines, appeared on the newspaper's front page.

Obviously determined to demean her status, he focused on subjects such as "Sensations in the Dissecting Room" and "Hacking 'the Human form Divine.' "

Dr. Angwin, to her credit, assured the arrogant man that her reaction to such aspects of medical training were no different than her male counterparts'. She also dismissed his allegation that once a female doctor married, "all her medical studies are lost."

The reporter, no doubt, frustrated by the physician's self-assured demeanour, ended the interview with a contemptuous question. "How do you regard the boycotting that you will certainly receive from Halifax and Dartmouth doctors?"

The unflappable Dr. Angwin put him in his place by declaring: "The motto that will hang on my office is this: 'If God be for us, who can be against us?' "

During the interview, she disclosed that she was on her way to London, England, to spend a number of months at the Royal Free Hospital. When asked why, she said something truly insightful. "It does not follow because a person graduates and gets a diploma that there is nothing more to learn. The more I have learned, the more I want to know, and the greater the field of medical science appears."

The following year, on Sept. 9, 1884, a small ad announcing the opening of her medical practice appeared in the Halifax Herald. A few days later, Dr. Angwin earned a lasting place in Nova Scotia history when she became the first woman physician licensed to practise medicine in Halifax.

Fortunately for history buffs, an article about Angwin's exemplary contribution to medicine in this province appeared in Volume 43 of the 1991 edition of Collections of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society. It had been written by Lois Yorke, who was, for a number of years, the provincial archivist at The Nova Scotia Archives.

It provides its readers with a captivating account of the years this extraordinary woman practised in Halifax and Dartmouth.

During these years, Maria had lived in a number of houses where her office was also always located. In January 1894, she and her unmarried sister, Elizabeth, purchased a house of Spring Garden Road and immediately mortgaged it for $1,500.

Within a year, the doctor had installed a telephone, number 400. (At the time, her male colleagues had also begun to recognize the merit of having the "new-fangled device" in their offices.)

Dr. Angwin, however, became better known, not for her telephone, but for a pet parrot that apparently loudly squawked, "Someone wants the doctor," every time the front door bell was rung.

Totally dedicated to the urgent medical needs of poor women and children, she directed her tireless efforts mainly to improving their health and well-being. She was also clearly an enlightened innovator since, long before it became an essential aspect of medical practice, she actively promoted preventive medicine.

She also became a vocal crusader against alcohol and cigarettes and was a dedicated and vocal member of local temperance groups.

Although some of her male colleagues were reluctant to make "house calls " to slum areas, she was never afraid to do this. When a friend asked her if she carried a weapon for self-defence, the courageous lady replied, "Oh no, I always carry a hat pin."

In 1895, Dr. Angwin again made news when she contributed an article to the Halifax Herald. It denounced the deplorable way contemporary women were treated. She was particularly dismayed about "a vast army of spinsters and widows" who she said society "compels to earn their daily bread, starve, or go to the poor house."

Ironically, more than 100 years later, many still echo the relevance of her concerns.

Sadly, as the late 1890s approached, Dr. Angwin's health had deteriorated. Faced with this reality, she notified her patients and colleagues that she felt she immediately needed a change of climate and a rest.

In April, 1898, she wrote to the Medical Society of Nova Scotia with the news that she planned to soon resume her practice. But this never happened as her death occurred near the end of the same month.

Without question, Dr. Angwin represents one of this province's most neglected historical figures because, as was written about her soon after her death, "she was the pioneer lady doctor in this province, and was greatly respected, not only in her duties as a physician, but also in every work that tended to elevate fallen humanity."

In June 2004, the Nova Scotia College of Family Physicians thankfully honoured Dr. Angwin’s memory by planting a tree and placing a plaque by her grave in a Dartmouth cemetery.

Dorothy Grant is a freelance writer in Halifax.



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