MacKENZIE, ELIZA (Elizabeth) MARGARET, schoolteacher, physician, and nurse; b. 10 July 1879 in Flat River, P.E.I., daughter of Donald MacKenzie, a farmer and blacksmith, and Christina (Christy) McRae; d. there unmarried 17 Feb. 1937.
Eliza Margaret MacKenzie was born and raised in the Belfast area of Prince Edward Island, a region that produced several women physicians during an era when such individuals were rare. She was first educated at South Pinette School and subsequently attended Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown, from which she graduated in 1895. She then taught school, first in Surrey in 1896, later in North Pinette for two years, and finally at her home school, South Pinette. Many women taught during the years before marriage, but Eliza had other aspirations and she was perhaps saving money to fulfil them. In 1900 she entered the medical school of Dalhousie University in Halifax.
The school had been established in 1868 but did not accept its first female student until 1888. Women pioneers in the medical field often faced much opposition while undertaking their studies. It can only be speculated that Eliza endured similar resistance since she left no account of her experiences. Despite any challenges she may have faced, in the spring of 1904 she became the first woman from Prince Edward Island to graduate from Dalhousie medical school. One of four women to obtain their mds that year, she returned home after receiving her degree.
The Medical Council of Prince Edward Island was the body then responsible for licensing physicians in the province. Although examinations appear to have been administered in July and October 1904, there is no record of Eliza sitting for or passing either one and it was not until 1906 that she was registered with the council. Nevertheless, the Charlottetown Guardian on 29 Nov. 1904 announced that “Charlottetown will shortly boast of a female physician. Dr. Eliza MacKenzie of Flat River … intends in a few days to open an office in this city.” Eliza thus became the first woman to practise medicine in Charlottetown, over 20 years after the first woman physician in Nova Scotia, Maria Louisa Angwin*, was licensed to practise in Halifax. Placing “professional cards” in various local newspapers over the next few months, Eliza advertised her specialization in diseases of women and children. The choice of this field was not unusual among female physicians at this time. Nor was it unusual that Eliza began treating patients before obtaining a licence; so had such other Canadian doctors as Emily Howard Stowe [Jennings*], Charlotte Ross [Whitehead*], Amelia Yeomans [Le Sueur*], and Elizabeth Beckett Matheson [Scott*]. By directing her attention to women and children, Eliza was more likely to find acceptance as a physician on the Island, a conservative society which would have frowned upon a young, unmarried women addressing the medical needs of the male population. It is unclear how long she practised in Charlottetown, or why she stopped. Author and physician Gladys Enid Johnson MacLeod suggests that, “intelligent, but perhaps too beautiful, she apparently found it difficult to cope with and adjust to the competition and the prevailing attitudes towards women doctors in Charlottetown.”
It seems that Eliza had given up her practice by June 1911. When the Canadian census was taken on the Island that month, she was living with her parents in the Flat River area. She soon changed her focus and began studies at St Luke’s Hospital Training School for Nurses in New York City, from which she graduated in 1913. She then may have assumed nursing duties at St Luke’s Hospital itself, although later records indicate that she did some work as a private nurse. She remained on the “Active Member Roster” of the Alumnae Association of the St Luke’s Hospital Training School for Nurses until her death. Eliza left no explanation why she turned to nursing when so many other Canadian women physicians were relocating to the United States and establishing successful practices in more congenial circumstances. One can only assume that her experiences in Charlottetown had robbed her of any desire to continue in the profession.
Eliza appears to have resided in New York City until, like many women with medical training, she joined the armed forces during World War I, serving as a nursing sister overseas. She first enrolled in the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, a British unit, in February 1917 and subsequently was stationed in England and then in France. She transferred to the Canadian Army Medical Corps on 25 Feb. 1918 and served in England for the next year. She was shipped back to Halifax in the spring of 1919 because of ill health. Diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, she was discharged in August and was sent to the Nova Scotia Sanatorium in Kentville for a six-months’ stay.
After a brief period of convalescence with her family, Eliza returned to New York, where she resumed her nursing duties. According to newspaper reports of her death, she was on staff at St Luke’s Hospital for many years, although her exact position is uncertain. Eliza continued in her profession until early 1937, when she fell ill and was hospitalized at St Luke’s for several weeks. Few details are known of this last illness, which was presumably a result of the tuberculosis diagnosed earlier. Her sister Jane Bell MacKenzie travelled to New York to care for her and eventually brought her home to Flat River, where she died on 17 Feb. 1937. In a province where she had struggled to gain acceptance as a physician, Eliza found respect in death as “Dr. MacKenzie.” One eulogist claimed that “Dr. MacKenzie was greatly beloved. She was a wonderful character, endowed with unusual intellect, charm, and personality. She could be truly called one of God’s gifts to the world.”
Foundation of N.Y. State Nurses, Bellevue Alumnae Center for Nursing Hist., MC 32 (St Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae Assoc. records, 1890–2009), ser.4, box 18. LAC, Census returns for the 1911 Canadian census, Queens, P.E.I., subdist.43: 1; RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166, box 6968–20. Dalhousie Gazette (Halifax), 14 Nov. 1904. Carlotta Hacker, The indomitable lady doctors (Toronto, 1974). R. G. Lea, Island medicine: a historical review (Charlottetown, 1984). [G.] E. J. MacLeod, Petticoat doctors: the first forty years of women in medicine at Dalhousie University (Porter’s Lake, N.S., 1990). “Medical women of Prince Edward Island,” Saskatoon Women’s Calendar Collective, Herstory: a Canadian women’s calendar (Sidney, B.C.), 1981: 12. R. B. Nichols, “Early women doctors of Nova Scotia,” Nova Scotia Medical Bull. (Halifax), 29 (1950): 14–21. V. [J.] Strong-Boag, “Canada’s women doctors: feminism constrained,” in A not unreasonable claim: women and reform in Canada, 1880s–1920s, ed. Linda Kealey (Toronto, 1979), 109–29. Zonta Club, A century of women (Charlottetown, 1967).