By Ingrid Birker
In 1912, when the McGill Board of Governors appointed Carrie Derick as the Professor of Comparative Morphology and Genetics, she became the first woman in Canada to be appointed as a full professor. Hers is a story of determination, hard work and belief in her own rights and in the rights of all women. But most people know little about the life and work of Canada’s first woman geneticist, who was also a botanist, gardener, suffragette, social reformer and founder of McGill’s Genetics Department.
Born in 1861 in Clarenceville in the Eastern Townships, Carrie Matilda Derick enrolled in McGill’s Faculty of Arts in 1889. By the time she retired from McGill 40 years later in 1929, she had widened the professional and occupational fields for women, improved the social and educational aspects of their lives, and helped them to gain political rights.
Her first job after graduation in 1890 was teaching at the Trafalgar Institute for Girls. She simultaneously worked part-time as McGill’s first female botany “demonstrator.” In 1891 Derick started a Masters with Botany Professor David Penhallow. According to Valerie Pazstor’s recently released book Biology @McGill, she finished her Master’s work in four years, “a remarkable feat considering she held down two jobs at the same time! … One can imagine that her days were long and exhausting, but she evidently had enough energy to develop research interests and summers saw her hard at work at Wood’s Hole and other research laboratories, while taking an MA degree in Botany.”
After seven years of lecturing, assisting Penhallow with his classes, researching and publishing, without any pay increments or offers of promotion, she wrote directly to Principal Peterson and was promoted to assistant professor in 1905 with a salary of $1,250. According to Margaret MacMillan’s book on Stephen Leacock, the equivalent male counterpart at McGill received an annual salary of $3,000 in 1906.
Derick went to the University of Bonn in 1901 to study for her PhD and completed all her PhD research in 1906 but was not awarded the degree because the University of Bonn did not grant doctorates to women.
She returned to McGill and continued to work, teach and administer in the Botany Department. In 1909, when Penhallow became ill, Derick assumed his role as Chair, and when he died a year later she ran the department alone for the next three years, before officially being appointed a professor in 1912.
In terms of her academic specialty, Derick created a course in “Evolution and Genetics” that became the first of its kind in Canada. Evolution had been an extremely controversial topic during her own undergraduate education, and genetics was still an emerging field. Derick also published numerous articles on botany, including a booklet about McGill’s trees in 1929, where she elaborates on the genetics of inheritance and also recommended landscape management strategies for the campus.
Derick did not limit her observations and opinions to flora and genes. She publicly supported birth control, which was illegal in Canada from 1891 to 1969. In 1915 she even dared to confront Quebec’s premier Sir Lomer Gouin’s position on birth control, after which he reportedly complained: “How she makes me blush, that old maid from McGill.”
Derick’s legacy in Canadian scientific history rests on more than her career. She was president of the Montreal Suffrage Association from 1913-1919, and in her “witty” public lectures she urged that the “domestic service” be given the status of a profession, and encouraged women to pursue careers in agriculture. In 1914, she supported Annie Langstaff, the first woman to graduate in law at McGill, in her unsuccessful bid to be admitted to the bar in Quebec. Along with Maude Abbott, McGill’s pioneer cardiologist and Curator of the Medical Museum, she founded and was a lifelong member of the National Council of Women.
Carrie Derick retired from McGill in 1929 because of poor health, and the university awarded her the honorary title of ‘Professor Emerita.’ She died in 1941.
To honour Carrie Derick’s legacy, the first Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium will be held on October 13, 2012. For details, please visit www.mcgill.ca/science/events/outreach/wisems