Charlotte Whitehead Ross

Charlotte Whitehead Ross

JULY 15, 1843 – FEBRUARY 21, 1916

Dr. Charlotte Whitehead Ross was a physician who was well-known for practicing throughout rural Manitoba. She holds the illustrious distinction of being Manitoba’s first woman doctor, and one of Canada’s pioneers in the field. Throughout her career she would assist pioneer families who were living in isolation with often severely limited resources. Her commitment, compassion, and indomitable spirit would ensure that rural Manitoba would develop along a safer and healthier route.

Born on 15 July, 1843 in Darlington, England, Charlotte’s father, Joseph Whitehead, was an engineer who became a railroad contractor in Upper Canada when the family moved there in 1848, settling in Clinton, Huron County. She was educated in Montreal before marrying David Ross, a scot in the employment of her father, in 1861.

Following her husband as he travelled to remote parts of Ontario on construction work meant that she would frequently have to live in isolation with severely limited medicinal resources, the prospect of which was largely responsible for inspiring her to study medicine. It was also in part fueled out of her experiences caring for her invalid older sister, Mary Anne.

At the time there were no medical schools in Canada that would accept women, and, according to the customs of the time, women were not expected to enter into a profession; thus, women doctors in Canada were nearly nonexistent. As such, Charlotte had to travel to Philadelphia in order to undergo medical training, enrolling in the Women’s Medical College in 1870. It took ten years of hard work and homesickness to complete her training and earn a medical degree.

Upon returning to Montreal, she became the first woman to practice medicine there, specializing in treating diseases in women and children and delivering babies. In 1881, her husband moved to the remote pioneer town of Whitemouth, Manitoba, in order to work on constructing Canadian Pacific Railway lines between Kenora and Winnipeg, eventually establishing the Ross Lumber Company. Loyal Charlotte moved the family to be with him, ingraining herself in the community of Whitemouth and soon becoming an essential piece of it.

Manitoba at the time was a very rural and underdeveloped place, lacking in modern facilities and institutions- she was the only doctor within a 100 mile radius, and most people were still living as frontiersmen and pioneers in rural farmsteads and backwoods homesteads. She would be called upon for service, treating any accidents suffered by her husband’s workers and also making trips to sick community members, travelling great distances through wilderness by any means of transportation she could, even in the dead of winter.

As a physician, Charlotte placed a particular emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene: she meticulously sterilized her patients and instruments and even insisted that any currency coming into her household and those of her patients be sterilized, as she believed that they were transmitters of disease. She was also known to clean the house of women for whom she had just delivered a baby and cook enough food for a few weeks so that the mother may have time to rest. Despite her dedication to her community members, she never ceased in her dedication to her family; she bore ten children throughout her life (two died of childbirth).

In 1888, a legislative bill that would authorize her practice was defeated, as the Assembly felt it was inappropriate for a woman to treat patients besides women and children. Thus, she was never officially registered by the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons. However, she did not let this stop her from helping her patients, feeling a duty towards them as there was a serious lack of necessary institutions, thus demonstrating her tenacity and humanitarianism.

A pioneer woman of truly legendary status, Charlotte Ross was ahead of her times. Undeniably, Manitoba owes a debt of gratitude to her tireless dedication- without it, rural Manitoba would have lost some of its valuable citizens whose descendants still exist today. Her legacy is honoured by the annual handing out of the Charlotte W. Ross Gold Medal for highest honours in obstetrics in the Manitoba Medical College, which was first awarded in 1917 by her granddaughter, Dr. Edith Ross.

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