Manitoba History: Review: Fred Edge, The Iron Rose: The Extraordinary Life of Charlotte Ross, M.D. & Julie Vandervoort, Tell the Driver: A Biography of Elinor F. E. Black, M.D.
by Patricia Jasen
These two biographies of women in medicine chart very two different lives. Charlotte Ross (1843-1916) belonged to the first generation of women to practice medicine in Canada and was Manitoba’s first qualified woman doctor. What inspired her to study medicine, in part, was her conviction that women needed women doctorsthat Victorian modesty prevented many women from seeking medical aid when they needed it. Elinor Black (1905-1982) was born thirty years after Ross obtained her degree, and she decided as a child that she might make a career in medicine when two women doctors came to her public school in Calgary as medical inspectors during the First World War. Yet her career, too, was highlighted by a series of “firsts,” as she was the first Canadian woman to become a Member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the first to head a major medical department.
Charlotte Ross began to study medicine informally during the late 1860s, while caring for a beloved older sister who was dying of tuberculosis. Her family history documents some of the medical scourges of the Victorian age; as a child, she lost her mother and five year old brother to diphtheria, and some years later, while poring over a borrowed medical text, she would realize that her sister Mary Anne’s “weak lungs” signified consumption. After Mary Anne’s death, Ross acted upon her resolve to become a doctor. Although her father condemned her decision, her husband evidently provided unstinting support, even though the exclusion of women from medical schools in Canada meant that she would have to study in the United States and would be leaving her three children behind in Montreal. Ross graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia in 1875. Unable to obtain a medical licence in Canada, she practised without one, first in Montreal and then in Manitoba. Her family moved west to engage in the construction of the CPR and settled in the community of Whitemouth in 1881, where Ross pursued her career for the next twenty-five years and raised her growing family.
In the city her patients had been women, but in the construction camps she treated anyone who needed help, through any method available to her. Unlike most physicians in the late nineteenth century, she did not shun the use of simple herbal remedies where called for. Her first patient was a man suffering from rubella, and she employed a cure her family had learned long ago from their Ojibway neighbours: from her own supply of “roots, seeds and leaf herbs,” she took a handful of pumpkin seeds and prepared a decoction which was to relieve the man’s discomfort (194). Her ability to treat more serious diseases and the injuries suffered by workmen resulted in acceptance and recognition, and she gradually developed a practicethough never a legally sanctioned onethat “was strung out along the railway line from Whitemouth to Rat Portage” (208).
Once the railway was complete and settlers had arrived, Ross became a family doctor, making house calls throughout the region, travelling by phaeton, horseback, train, or even by handcar in an emergency. Improvisation was often called for. For example, she was able to anaesthetize a man having his leg amputated on the family’s kitchen table through the cooperation of his wife, who was instructed by Ross in the technique of dripping chloroform into a towel which was wrapped around his face. She also provided care for Native women who sought her services, such as the young Saulteaux woman who travelled for three days by canoe from Fort Alexander. She had been unable to wait for the treaty doctor who, in any case, she said, examined men and women in the same room and “treated them like cattle” (216).
The Iron Rose makes a real contribution to the history of women in medicine and the medical profession in Manitoba, but contains no endnotes or bibliography. The book is, in the author’s words, a “dramatized biography,” full of detailed conversations and private thoughts, and the reader is not always sure how literally each anecdote may be taken. Vandervoort’s biography of Elinor Black, on the other hand, is abundantly documented, a task facilitated by Black’s passion for organizing her own papers, which even include a file labelled “Boyfriends.” The book is rich in context, and Black’s life unfolds against the backdrop of the Depression, World War II, the Winnipeg flood, and the evolution of medicine in the middle decades of the century.
Black begins her medical studies some fifty years after Ross graduated, but she too faced strong opposition which, in her case, inflicted private wounds that lasted a lifetime. She attended the Manitoba Medical College in the 1920s and was drawn into the field of obstetrics and gynaecology partly because her teachers were good, but also because she realized that it was the only field in which women were accepted as surgeons. In 1930 she continued her training in England, fell in love but could not bring herself to abandon her career for marriage (as seemed to be expected of her), and returned to Winnipeg to the gloomy task of setting up a practice during the worst years of the Depression, when few people could pay for a doctor’s services.
In 1937, Black returned to Britain to qualify as a Member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and part of her written work consisted of a series of patient care histories. Her collection highlighted the still serious problem of sepsis or “childbed fever” and her alarm at the unnecessary loss of life it caused. In 1936, in Winnipeg, there had been an epidemic; within a few days eight women had succumbed to a streptococcal puerperal infection, and three had died. The maternity ward was closed for two weeks, and the continued fear of infection spreading from other wards of the hospital was a primary factor in the building of a new Women’s Pavilion after the war. It opened in 1950, and in 1951 Black became obstetrician and gynaecologist-in-chief at Winnipeg General Hospital, and head of the same department at the University of Manitoba.
Throughout her career, Black was involved in controversies concerning women’s health and treatment practices. In 1942 she began to air her concerns about hormone therapy. By the end of the war, pharmaceutical companies were promising relief from a host of problems, including postpartum depression, endometriosis, and symptoms of menopause, but Black questioned whether “one is justified in subjecting the female organism to onslaughts of potent preparations which may cause imbalance in other endocrine functions not yet understood” (156). As one of her students would recall, Black continued to have “a real thing on hormone therapy” (216), and would later warn of the dangers of the Pill, as well. When treating women who found themselves unable to conceive, she was scornful of husband’s reluctance to consider that the problem might be their own, and she did not approve of women being put through months of “tedious and expensive testing ... only to find a state of complete azospermia when the husband finally agrees to be the subject of a most rudimentary test” (208). On the question of Caesarian sections she was very conservative, highly critical of the growing incidence of this procedure and of the way that social class (or ability to pay) seemed to influence the way that women gave birth. She took a middle road in the late fifties on the new fashion for “natural childbirth,” but was adamant that husbands did not belong in delivery rooms.
Black was not a feminist, and by her own admission did not even “get on with women,” although she had relationships with her sister, Charlotte, and with her friend, Gertrude Rutherford, which were very loving and intense. Throughout this well-written biography, the story of Black’s professional concerns and achievements is interwoven with her personal life and the complicated business of being a woman in a profession where the easiest way to survive was to become “one of the boys.” But sometimes it was very necessary for her to confirm her identity as a woman. Calling a taxi proved to be such an occasion for, in her experience, a driver not knowing to expect a woman might let a man grab the taxi instead. On her instructions, therefore, the despatcher always told his drivers the same thing: “I need a cab to such and such an address. It’s for Dr. Black. And tell the driverDr. Black is a woman.”
Page revised: 3 December 2019Back to top of page