For our second foray into the subject of women in science we will talk about Carrie Matilda Derick, a trailblazer in academia, women’s’ rights and a Canadian to boot. She was Canada’s first university professor and seemed to have the calling to teach from early on; she began teaching at the age of fifteen.

Derick was born in Clarenceville, Quebec in 1862 and educated at the local school. She proceeded to graduate with a teaching degree in Montreal in 1881 and even won the Prince of Wales Gold Medal after which she returned to Clarenceville Academy as their principal at only nineteen years old. She pursued a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University at the top of her class with the highest GPA that year and received the Logan Gold Medal for all her hard work. Her graduating class also held two other notable Canadian women, Elizabeth Binmore (a notable leader in education and first woman to hold the post of president of the Teachers’ Association of Montreal) and Maude Abbot (one of Canada’s first female medical graduate and expert in congenital heart disease). The women in this group were among the first women to earn their B.A.s in this country.

Derick began teaching at the Trafalgar Institute for girls in 1890 while concurrently working as the first female botany demonstrator at McGill. She continued her education while holding down two jobs at the same time receiving her M.A in botany within four years. She then went to the University of Bonn in Germany continuing the necessary research to obtain a PhD without earning the official doctorate because the universities in Germany at the time did not award them to women. ‘Hey, you can do all the studying and help us out with research but you do not have the intelligence enough to get a piece of paper.’ I am glad some things have changed a bit. She spent many of her summers doing research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, studying at Harvard, and/or the Royal Academy of Science in England.

When the chair of her department recommended her as a lecturer, she was offered a position as demonstrator. Derick originally refused the position stating that she could not afford to give up her two other jobs. Eventually her promotion was authorized and she worked as a lecturer until 1904 when she was made an associated professor. This was as a result of her many protests that the board was delaying her appointment. She assumed the position of the chair of the Department of Botany when the sitting chair died and did the job for two years. In 1912, McGill University opened the position for competition and she was forced to apply for a position that she had at that point been doing for close to two years. She lost the competition to someone else despite some very strong support amongst her peers.

Possibly as an appeasement or worried about losing her, the board appointed her as Professor of Morphological Botany. This appointment was somewhat symbolic; the position held no seat on the faculty and did not see a pay increase. It was not even in her area of expertise so she petitioned to have the title changed to Professor of Comparative Morphology and Genetics to better reflect her studies. She introduced a new course, “Evolution and Genetics” which was considered quite controversial at the time. Evolution was not generally accepted as a fact and the study of genetics was still in its infancy. This class was truly groundbreaking.

Derick wrote a number of articles on botany, biographical and political essays, and was even featured in the 1910 edition of American Men of Science. If the pursuit of academic excellence was not enough to impress, she was also a leader in the suffrage movement and women’s rights as well. She was dedicated to fighting for the right to education, work, and the vote for women. In an age where birth control was illegal, she publically supported a woman’s access to it and even confronted the premier, Sir Lomen Gouin regarding his position on this topic. She believed in the access to education for all children and served as the president of the Montreal Suffrage Association form 1913-1919.

Carrie Derick was forced to retire from McGill University in 1929 due to ill health but was honoured by being made the first female professor emeritus (a honourary title given to retired professor for distinguished service) in Canada.

–Janice Willson

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