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What do you mean “old maid from McGill”?

For the week of Monday January 13, 2014

On January 14, 1862, Carrie Matilda Derick was born in Clarenceville, Quebec. She was a brilliant woman who made history as the first female professor in a Canadian university and by teaching the first genetics class at McGill University in Montréal.

Carrie Derick, the first woman in Canada to be appointed to a full professorship
© McCord Museum / William Notman & Son / 1890
Derick was already teaching classes at the age of 15 and was the principal of the local school by 19! When she went on to McGill in 1887, the university had begun accepting women only three years earlier. A year after receiving a Bachelor’s degree, she worked at McGill as a demonstrator. The university was reluctant to appoint a woman as a lecturer. Eventually she did take the title of lecturer and then assistant professor in 1904, but always working much harder than her male colleagues for a fraction of the recognition and pay. At the University of Bonn in Germany, Derick was refused a doctoral degree because she was a woman, despite completing all the requirements.

Although not yet accepted as a professor, Derick continued to work, largely underappreciated, as chair of the Botany Department at McGill in 1909. Finally in 1912, she became a Professor of Morphological Botany, studying plant biology and creating a revolutionary new course in evolution and genetics. Her contribution to science merited a spot on the “American Men of Science” list in 1910.

Carrie Derick created the first course in genetics at McGill University
© Acc. 90-105 Science Service Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Carrie Derick’s contribution to women’s rights extends beyond McGill’s campus. She was involved with the Federation of University Women of Canada, the Montreal Suffrage Association and the National Council of Education, among others. Through these, she advocated for the right to vote, the entry of women into professions and the legalization of birth control. In the controversial birth control debate, she went head to head with the Premier of Quebec, Sir Lomer Gouin, who confided, “How she made me blush, that old maid from McGill.”

Carrie Matilda Derick knocked down barriers that limited women’s careers and academic ambitions. For this she is recognized as a National Historic Person.

To learn more about women in Canadian Universities, see A Pioneer of Women's University Education or to learn more about women in science, see Harriet Brooks: A Woman of Science.

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