Nova Scotia’s first woman doctor

It’s surprising more Nova Scotians don’t know Maria Angwin’s name. In the late 1800s, when she became the province’s first licensed woman doctor, there wasn’t a medical college in Canada where women could study.

When she decided to pursue a career in medicine, she didn’t let that barrier deter her. To earn some money to pursue her studies, in 1873 she became a school teacher. She worked in the province for a few years but didn’t enjoy teaching. “It didn’t agree with my health,” she recalled later.

In 1879, she heard about the Woman’s Medical College of New York Infirmary, one of the few American universities willing to accept female students. She was accepted, paying the fees with the money she earned teaching.

1n 1882, Angwin received her medical degree and after a year of postgraduate work came back to Halifax for a brief visit. A young reporter from the Morning Herald arranged an interview, writing a front-page story about her studies.

With the casual sexism of the era, the report focused on subjects such as “Sensations in the Dissecting Room” and “Hacking ‘the Human Form Divine.'” Angwin assured reader that her reactions to medical training were no different than her male counterparts’. 

The following year on Sept. 9, 1884, a newspaper small ad announced the opening of her medical practice in Halifax. A few days later, Dr. Angwin became the first woman physician licensed in Nova Scotia.

In January, 1894, she purchased a house on Spring Garden Road and soon installed a newfangled telephone. Locals knew her for her pet parrot that loudly squawked, “Someone wants the doctor!” whenever the doorbell rang.

Angwin focused on the urgent medical needs of underprivileged women and children, working to improve their heath and wellbeing. Long before most people were talking about it, she promoted preventive medicine, crusading against alcohol and tobacco. She was a dedicated and vocal member of local temperance groups. 

Many doctors wouldn’t make house calls in poorer neighbourhoods but she was willing. When a friend asked if she carried a weapon for self-defence, Angwin replied “Oh no, but I always carry a sharp hat pin.”

In the late 1890s, her health deteriorated and she decided she needed a change of climate and a rest. In April 1898, after a break, she wrote to the Medical Society of Nova Scotia with news that she planned to soon resume her practice. But before she could do so, she died, later that same month.

Her obituary noted that she had been “faithful, attentive, conscientious, and laboured in her profession far beyond her strength, while her womanly sympathy and medical knowledge won the friendship as well as the trust of her patients.”

Writer’s Note: In researching this article, the only reminder of Dr. Angwin we could find of her was a small headstone in a neglected Dartmouth cemetery. Since then, and with the support of the Nova Scotia College of Family Physicians, a tree and plaque now mark the grave where she was buried in 1898.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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