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T.W. Paterson: Obiturary notices can be inspiring

Never formally licensed by the Manitoba College of physicians and Surgeons, this didn’t stop her

Although never formally licensed by the Manitoba College of physicians and Surgeons, this didn’t stop her from practising.

Like cemeteries, I’ve always found obituaries to be anything but morbid. Some of them, in fact, can be almost inspiring in their recounting of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of extraordinary ordinary people.

I’m sure that in many cases not even close friends, perhaps even family members, really were aware of some people’s backgrounds. Hence the real value of a well-researched and well-written obit.

One that caught my eye recently in the Times-Colonist was that of Robert Frederick Edge, 26 March, 1927-14 April, 2017. His photo is right out of an old movie, showing him squinting with a half-smoked cigarette held tight between his lips; it almost cries out, newspaperman.

As indeed he was, and an award-winning author to boot. He’d come a long way in his 90 years, in fact, from logger to reporter, columnist and editor with many Canadian newspapers including the Vancouver Province, Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Telegram and Winnipeg Free Press. He also wrote 200 magazine articles as a freelancer and scripted teleplays for the CBC and NBC, among them the highly popular Avengers series.

But these aren’t Robert Edge’s achievements that piqued my curiosity, interesting as they are. It was the reference to his book The Iron Rose, a biography of Charlotte Whitehead Ross, “Quebec’s and Manitoba’s first female physician”.

Mrs., or Dr. Ross, according to Edge’s obituary, “was denied a medical license in 1887, but practised and was never prosecuted. The Manitoba legislature granted [her] a license posthumously after publication of the book” which earned for Robert Edge the Margaret McWilliams Medal (Popular History) from the Manitoba Historical Society in 1993.

Now there’s a story! So I checked the MHS website for more information on Charlotte W. Ross. She’s included in the society’s series on Memorable Manitobans and she’s in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography from which I learned that Charlotte, 1843-1916, was born in Darlington, England and emigrated to Upper Canada with her parents at the age of five.

The family settled near Montreal where Charlotte attended a Catholic academy. Upon graduation, she married David Ross, an employee in her father’s railway construction business. Three births soon followed, all while caring for an invalid sister, which sparked her interest in medicine. With the encouragement of David and family physician William Hingston, she enrolled in the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia (there being no such Canadian institutions), David’s family caring for the children between summer semesters.

After a miscarriage cost her her first year of study, with her two younger daughters she returned to college in 1871 but had to miss 1872 because of a difficult pregnancy. Two more children, the last three months after her graduation in 1875, meant it had taken her 10 years to qualify as a physician. Although she didn’t register with the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Quebec, she became Montreal’s first woman doctor.

In frontier Whitemouth, Man., where David operated a sawmill, she was immediately called upon to treat a medical emergency. “As the only physician within a radius of 100 miles, the Dictionary tells us, “she was much in demand by native people as well as by settlers, lumbermen, and railway workers”. She not only scrubbed up to treat a patient, she had to do “scrub the cabin floor and do the washing, the cooking, and the baking…” She also knitted, embroidered, played piano) and grew roses — believed impossible in Manitoba’s climate.

When a private member’s bill was introduced in the Manitoba Legislative Assembly to authorize her to practise, a single MLA opposed on the grounds that she should be restricted from treating males. The bill was withdrawn but Charlotte, who was a member of the Manitoba Medical Association, “continued on her busy rounds by horse, sleigh, canoe and train, not defiantly, for she was no social or political activist, but simply because there was a need.”

That need is difficult for us to grasp today. For all of the challenges of too few doctors in Britsh Columbia, and lengthy waiting lists for surgery, the scarcity of qualified medical professionals and facilities on the Canadian frontier was a killer. Even minor illnesses and scrapes often proved fatal for want of adequate treatment and infection. We can be sure that Charlotte Ross was deeply appreciated by her patients, particularly by women.

Throughout her busy career and three more pregnancies, she kept abreast of changes in her profession and the Ross family did their part for the community by donating land for a school and church where Charlotte taught Sunday School.

In 1916, four years after David’s death, Charlotte, by then suffering from rheumatism, moved to Winnipeg where she died the same year. It’s noted that the floral tributes adorning her casket came from across the country.

As the MHS website and Dictionary show, she hasn’t been forgotten. She has also achieved posthumous accreditation from the Manitoba medical community and the Charlotte W. Ross Gold Medal for highest honours in obstetrics has been given annually by the Manitoba Medical College since 1917. And a monument has been erected to her memory in Whitehead.

All in all, another great story from the obituaries. Well done, Charlotte Ross for your remarkable achievements and well done, journalist Fred Edge for helping to immortalize her in print.