Ahead of her time: Trailblazing alumnae of the 1900s
Only a century ago, achieving a university education – as a woman – was considered unrespectable, and a waste of the family money.
Well into the early 1900s, it was commonly believed that by entering the realm of higher learning women would become less feminine, jeopardizing home life and society as a whole. Indeed, many families – who assumed their daughters would abandon any career upon marriage – funded only their sons’ education.
This International Women’s Day, we’re remembering our early U of M alumnae who defied society’s expectations and became trailblazers in their own right.
FRANCES G. MCGILL [MD/1915]
Nicknamed “the Sherlock Holmes of Saskatchewan”, McGill was Canada’s first female forensic pathologist. At 33, she graduated from the U of M with the highest academic standing in her class, then returned to her home province to begin her career as Saskatchewan’s lead bacteriologist. In 1918, she produced over 60,000 vaccinations for the Spanish Flu. Two years later, she became provincial pathologist where she investigated suspicious deaths for local police and the RCMP.
Meticulous in her work, McGill quickly developed a reputation for uncovering the truth in the most difficult of cases – even ones where homicide had been ruled out. In one year alone, she conducted post-mortems on 13 exhumed bodies, finding five to be murder victims. “Don’t believe all the death certificates you see,” she once said. “There’s no reason why a man with a heart disease can’t have died of strychnine poisoning.”
She was instrumental in establishing the RCMP’s first forensic lab in 1937, and served as its director for three years. New recruits to the force were trained by McGill on skills such as crime scene investigation, collecting evidence and identifying blood samples. In 1952, her notes were compiled into a student textbook. To this day, her methods are practiced in modern policing.
McGill was appointed Honorary Surgeon to the RCMP in 1946 – the first woman to hold the title. She died on January 21, 1959, aged 76.
FRANCES ATWELL [BSC(PHARM)/1948]
Considered to be the first black pharmacist in Manitoba, Atwell (née Brown) was also the first black woman to graduate from the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. While growing up on Charles Street in Winnipeg’s North End, her neighbourhood druggist encouraged her to pursue pharmacy at the U of M. A talented mezzo-soprano and self-taught pianist, she participated in the university’s Glee Club and was a finalist for the Rose Bowl in 1948.
When Atwell graduated that same year, her class of 29 included only five women. During her career which spanned more than 60 years, she worked at St. Boniface Hospital, the Children’s Hospital, Grace Hospital, the Bay downtown, and pharmacies in St. Vital and St. Norbert. She officially retired at age 69, but continued to take the occasional shift at places she enjoyed working well into her 70s. She died on September 20, 2015, aged 92.
ELINOR BLACK [MD/1930]
Pioneering obstetrician and gynecologist Elinor Black attended the U of M against the wishes of her family. Female doctors were rare at the time, and Black’s own brother – already in medical school – complained that “women were a nuisance” in the faculty. Despite the opposition, Black graduated with top honours and was welcomed back to the U of M as a demonstrator in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology.
She strived to provide her students with an education devoid of the prejudices she had faced: Black and her female classmates were once shunned from an impromptu (and at the time, illegal) lecture on birth control. In response, when Black became a teacher she offered a private class to her female students.
By 1937, she was the only female lecturer in a Canadian medical school and was the first Winnipeg doctor to gain membership to the British Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. Black was briefly appointed house surgeon at the South London Hospital for Women, then returned to Canada where she became assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the U of M. She later served as head of these departments both at the university and Winnipeg General Hospital – all while maintaining a private practice.
Though she officially retired in 1964, she continued to teach until two days before her death on January 30, 1982 at age 76.
LOTTIE DUNCAN (SOMMERFELD) [MA/1925]
At a time when studying “homemaking” meant learning to bake and sew, Duncan (née Chapman, later Sommerfeld) was a staunch advocate of home economics as a science essential to creating healthy communities.
Growing up in in Beresford, Manitoba, her father encouraged her to pursue an education – first at the one-room school he helped build, then in Brandon and Winnipeg. When her husband died in 1918 from illness sustained during the First World War, Duncan returned to school to support her family. Leaving her young daughter with relatives, she moved to Wisconsin, then Chicago to study domestic science and obtain a bachelor’s degree. At the U of M, she became a lecturer in household management and in 1924, was made director of home economics.
Duncan ensured that students were taught more than household skills. She believed a strong background in psychology and physiology were essential, saying “An understanding of human being is extremely important, vastly more so and not to be mentioned in the same breath as making a good cake or a good dress.”
She was instrumental in the department achieving faculty status in 1924, and was appointed as dean. Duncan died on June 13, 1978, aged 91.
MARION MEADMORE [LLB/1977]
Born on Peepeekisis First Nation to a Cree mother and Ojibwe father, Meadmore (née Ironquill) was Canada’s first female Indigenous lawyer. She survived a decade of Residential School before enrolling in pre-med courses at the U of M at age 16.
Though she would put her studies on hold for marriage and to raise three children, Meadmore used this time to create organizations that built community, equality and independence for Indigenous people. She helped found the Indian and Métis Friendship Centre and the National Indian Council, which was a leader in Indigenous political organization. In 1970, she co-founded Kinew Housing, a non-profit that sought to bring affordable, safe, housing to urban Indigenous people.
Her community work inspired her to learn more about corporate law and how it could help her people become economically self-sufficient. Meadmore graduated with a bachelor of law from the U of M at age 41. She went on to open Winnipeg’s first female law firm, and found the National Indigenous Council of Elders, which helps Indigenous people succeed in business without government funding.
Meadmore is a recipient of the Order of Canada and the U of M’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
LILLIAN K. THOMAS [BA/1905]
Journalist, playwright and suffragette, Thomas (née Beynon) is cited as one of the most influential women in Canadian history. Thomas first became familiar with women’s struggles while working as a teacher in rural Manitoba. When the editor of the Manitoba Free Press passed through Morden, where she was working, she boldly asked him for her own column.
“Home Loving Hearts” was featured in the Weekly Free Press and Prairie Farmer. In between recipes, fashion advice and homemaking tips, Thomas published first-hand accounts of the grievances suffered by Prairie farm wives – particularly their desire for a law that would recognize their right to inherit and to homestead.
In 1912, she founded the Manitoba Political Equality League together with Nellie McClung and other progressively-minded women and men. She served as its first president and, as head of publicity, organized a speaking tour to promote women’s suffrage. In 1916, the league successfully campaigned for women’s right to vote in Manitoba. She died on September 2, 1961, aged 86.
Know of other early alumnae trailblazers? Let us know in the comments.