Lögberg-Heimskringla - 16.07.1993, Blaðsíða 4

Lögberg-Heimskringla - 16.07.1993, Blaðsíða 4
4 * Lögberg-Heimskringla • Föstudagur 2. júl! 1993 A pioneer woman doctor, Sigga Christianson Houston r ** #» by C. Stuart Houston, MD, DLitt, FRCPC Dr Sigridur (Sigga) Christianson, MD (Manitoba 1925), Saskatchewan's oldest living medical doctor, at 100 years, is a product of the ferment of her time, for all sorts of revo- lutionary ideas were abroad in the land. Women thought they should be allowed to vote, to own property, to enter fields previously restricted almost entirely to men. They might even qualify as "persons"! In Canada, Manitoba was the pre-eminent focus for these ideas, considered extremist by some. The Icelandic women were more active in the cause than any other immigrant group. Sigga's father, Geir Christianson (born 23 May 1860), a journeyman carpen- ter from the fishing viilage of Hafnarfjörður, just south of Reykjavík, Iceland, emigrated to North America around 1890. (A Canadian immigra- tion officer spelled the sur- name phonetically and the incorrect spelling stuck. It shouid have been Kristjans- son.) Times were tough in Iceland, following volcanic eruptions that covered the grass in many formerly good sheep-grazing areas. Before emigrating, Geir had worked in the Skagafjörði hayfields in northern Iceland, part of a labour-intensive crew turning over the freshly mowed hay, so susceptible to rot in that damp climate. One summer he had worked alongside Sesselja Rakel Sveinsdóttir (born 12 August 1857), the sixth of 13 children of Svein Asmundsson and Sigriður Jónsdóttir whose farm, Starrastaðir, was 15 km south of Varmalhid. The next haying season she wasn't there, and he learned that she had emi- grated to America. Geir arrived in Winnipeg (the "second largest Icelandic city in the world", after Reykjavik); family tradition says he had only 25 cents left in his pocket when he arríved. Geir's immigrant train was welcomed by a large group of Icelanders. Did anyone know where Sesselja Rakel was, he inquired. The question buzzed up and down the line. "Já, já" Someone knew. Sesselja Rakel was a maid in the hotel at Pembina, on the Red River south of Winnipeg, a mile or two below the 49th parallel in North Dakota. Geir went at once to Pembina, sought out Sesselja Rakel, and soon they were married. As a carpenter in the booming town of Grand Forks, Geir had steady summer employment at 25 cents an hour, but only odd jobs in winter. Before long he built a modest home and Sesselja took in boarders to supplement their income. A son, Bill, born 25 March 1892, and three daughters joined the family. Sigga, the oldest girl, born 28 June 1893, was an outstanding stu- dent. Halldora (Dora) fol- lowed on 13 January 1896 and Bjorg (Babs) on 28 January 1898. In 1905, the lure of free land at Vatnabygg was too much for Geir. He joined hundreds of Icelanders who homesteaded in the Wynyard- Mozart area of Saskatchewan. Geir, a fisherman's son, filed on 160 acres and took a pre- emption on another 160 acres, adjacent to the saline "dead sea" named Big Quill Lake. The soil was poor, drinking water had to be hauled from five miles away, and it was a 12-mile trip to the aspen woods where he went yearly to cut wood for fuel. Geir knew nothing about farming, but his carpentry skills put food on the table whenever he got a contract to build a near- by school. On the occasions after good rains, when a promising crop appeared, Geir would go into hock with the Massey Harris com- pany for new machinery, only to be hailed or frozen out before the wheat was in the bin. He was constantly in debt. Sigga's younger siblings were delighted with the free- dom of the farm. They loved living in a tent the first sum- mer while Geir completed their house, which measured 12 by 16 feet downstairs, and rested on a stone cellar. Compared with the neigh- bour's shacks, it was consid- ered a castle. A family photo from around 1909 showed the Sigga and Bill Christianson, ca 1897 family beside the possession of which they were most proud, a large woodpile. But Sigga, aged 12, was devastat- ed. There was no school for her to go to the first year, after which she was able to com- plete grades 7 and 8 at the new Mountain School. That's all there was. In Grand Forks, her mind had been set on going to university. Sigga was undaunted. Baldur Olson, a bachelor who lived on the next farm in the early years, was under the watchful eye of Sesselja, who invited him for Sunday dinner and often did his washing and darning. (Baldur went on to graduate from the Manitoba Medical College in 1915, then worked at the Ninette Sana- torium and later practised in Winnipeg.) Baldur's mother, "Aunty Olson", as Sigga always called her, offered an opportunity for further educa- tion. Sigga could work in Mrs Olson's boarding house in Winnipeg preparing meals for the men working for the Bardal Funeral Parlour, and go to school. Sigga was exul- tant, but there was a problem. She could hardly go to grade 9 in Winnipeg if she didn't have a warm winter coat. Her father didn't have $10 to his name. Sesselja Rakel's closest brother, Gisli Sveinsson, born 15 March 1859, at Loni Beach south of Gimli, was informed of the situation and gave Sigga the $10 which made her edu- cation possible. In Winnipeg, Sigga got up at 5 am each day, cooked breakfast for the men, and then went to high school. Next she moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to attend nor- mal school, where she gradu- ated in the class of 1914. During four years as a teacher at rural schools near Wynyard and at Bruno, Saskatchewan, Sigga saved enough money to finance her education at the University of Manitoba. She boarded with Mrs. Jonas Thorvardson at 768 Victor Street, near the Medical College (where Sigga's son later boarded with the same lady). Sigga took a year of pre-med and then was one of 13 women accepted into the College of Medicine (there were 14 women in a class picture taken later). Ten of them graduated in 1925, an unprecedented number of women among a graduating class of 55, a proportion not to be equalled for about 40 years. Fifty years later, when her medical student granddaugh- ter, Margaret Sigrithur Houston, asked Sigga whether it was difficult for a woman medical student in the 1920s, she said "Not at all, every one of the professors was so nice to me". On one hand, Sigga had a lifelong propensity for remembering pleasant things and completely repressing anything unpleasant. On the other hand, she idolised and had the full support, not only | of Dr Baldur Olson, but also of several of Win- nipeg's leading teachers, surgeon Brandur J. Brand- son (MD Manitoba 1900), obstetrician Olafur Bjorn- son (MD Manitoba 1897), and one of the city's promising young surgeons, Paul HT Thorlakson (MD Manitoba 1916). Each spring, Sigga took the 'Great West Express' home from Win- nipeg on a Friday evening in late April, and taught at Grandy School near Wynyard until the last Friday before medical classes began the following Monday morning usually in late September. She put her pupils in the eight or 10 grades through the year's curriculum in less than five months; there were no summer holidays for her. In the summer of 1924, she worked for five months at Fort Qu' Appelle Sanatorium under Dr RG Ferguson, conclud- ing in late September with the highly reputed Weyburn Survey of the health of children and the prevalence of tuberculosis. She received room, board and a small stipend at the sanatori- um, and got credit for all five months of medicine intern- ship from the Manitoba Medical College. At the time of Sigga's grad- uation in 1925, the University of Manitobá Brown and Gold contained a succinct and accurate report concerning her: "A Saskatchewan product and a credit to the province. Her tenacity of purpose, and diligence in studies has only been exceeded by her ioyalty to her many friends. Hobby: Red hair and fudge-making. A tenderheart, a wiii inflexible." Research in the archives in Reykjavík suggests that Sigga was the first Canadian woman and fourth woman doctor in the world of Icelandic des- cent. The first was Steinunn Jóhannesdóttir (later Steinunn Alice Hayes), who obtained her MD from Los Angeles in 1902. In Iceland, Kristin. Ólafsdóttir, born 21 Novem- ber 1889, graduated from Reykjavík in 1917, and Katrin Thoroddsen, born 7 July 1896 (and died in 1974) got her degree in 1921. After graduation, Sigga worked for a year in a sanato- rium at Fort Wayne, Indiana, where her duties included treatment of tuberculosis of the larynx by reflecting sun- light down the patient's throat with a mirror. She felt a year's Continued on page 5

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