MacNEILL (McNeil), MARY (Fulkerson), physician; b. c. 1859, probably in Arran Township, Upper Canada, daughter of Alexander McNeil and Mary —; m. sometime after 1908 D. E. Fulkerson, possibly in Buffalo, N.Y.; fl. 1861–1908.
Mary MacNeill’s parents were natives of the Isle of Colonsay, Scotland, who are thought to have immigrated to Upper Canada about 1852. They settled in Bruce County and became a prosperous farming family. Census records for 1861 show that they were Baptists and were living in Arran Township with their five children, of whom the youngest, two-year-old Mary, had been born in Canada. In 1871 they were still in Arran and Mary was attending school. By 1881 she was no longer living in her parents’ household.
When her father died in 1884, Mary MacNeill inherited $500. This sum may have helped to finance her education at the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago, where she began training in 1887–88. Access to medical training for women in Canada was still limited [see Emily Howard Jennings] and it was not unusual for women to go to the United States for their education. She attended the Woman’s Medical College in Toronto in 1888–89 but returned to Chicago for the 1889–90 academic year and graduated there in the spring of 1891.
What MacNeill did for the next two years is not certain. Her relatives believe that she did postgraduate work in San Francisco. She may have taken advanced training there at the University of California school of medicine or at Cooper Medical College. Women still encountered difficulties in obtaining internships in hospitals at this point, so if she interned in San Francisco, it was likely at the Pacific Dispensary for Women and Children.
By the spring of 1893 MacNeill was in Victoria, then a growing urban centre. She became the first woman to register as a medical doctor with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, receiving certification from its council in Victoria on 4 May 1893. Her youngest sister joined her to keep house. Although Annie Mackenzie Chambers, who may have trained with MacNeill at Toronto, practised medicine in Victoria from 1900 to the mid 1930s, men dominated Victoria’s medical community. John Sebastian Helmcken*, pioneer doctor and legislator, and Ernest Amos Hall, a leading proponent of gynaecological surgery for the alleviation of mental disorders, were both prominent. This male professional world must have contrasted sharply with MacNeill’s training in women-centred institutions. She was active in the Victoria Medico-Chirurgical Society, which existed from 1895 to 1899, but she did not take a leadership role, and she did not attend sessions of the group’s successor, the Victoria Medical Society, which began meeting in 1899. Her absence may indicate disillusionment with the medical profession.
MacNeill left Victoria in 1907 and went to live in Southampton, Ont., to care for her widowed brother Malcolm and his nine-year-old daughter, Katherine. Katherine MacNeill recalled that her aunt had become a stern, religious woman and was no longer the “fun-loving, high-spirited, lively person” that the recollections of relatives had led her to expect. A local resident remembers MacNeill preaching in the town’s Baptist church. The American medical directory of 1909 lists her as a non-practising physician in Southampton.
When MacNeill’s brother remarried in 1908, she left town, but she never registered to practise medicine in Ontario and is thought to have given up her profession. By this time she believed in healing through faith, not medicine. Indeed Charles Joseph Laird, a local doctor, recalled that on her marriage she threw her medical instruments into a lake. Family sources suggest that she may have become an evangelist, but one Southampton resident maintains that she became a missionary.
If it is true that MacNeill’s medical career ended in 1907, then her education and work as a doctor spanned the years of women’s greatest success in the field. After 1910 the numbers of female students and practitioners dropped sharply and women’s medical colleges began to close their doors. No further trace of Mary MacNeill has been found, and her story remains an intriguing fragment of the history of Canadian women and the medical profession.
[Information from family recollections of Mary MacNeill was graciously provided by Mary Knechtel of Toronto, a great-niece of the subject, in letters of 26 April and 31 May 1992, and in a telephone conversation with the author on 30 Sept. 1992. Details of MacNeill’s training and possible postgraduate work pieced together from various records at the Medical College of Pa, Arch. and Special Coll. on Women in Medicine (Philadelphia) were supplied by Teresa R. Taylor, associate archivist, in letters of 12 Feb. and 3 Sept. 1992. m.b.d.]
AO, RG 22, ser.284, reg.C: 471–74. British Columbia Medical Assoc., Medical Museum and Arch. (Vancouver), Committee on arch. coll., vol.2, file 9 (notes from minutes of the Victoria Medical Soc., 1895–1900); Notes prepared by Dr Trapp for a proposed history of women doctors in British Columbia. Medical College of Pa, Arch. and Special Coll. on Women in Medicine, MS-112 (records of the Northwestern Univ. Woman’s Medical School records, formerly the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago). NA, RG 31, C1, 1861, 1871, 1881, Arran Township. American medical directory (Chicago), 1909. College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia, British Columbia medical register (Vancouver), 1907. Wendy Mitchinson, The nature of their bodies: women and their doctors in Victorian Canada (Toronto, 1991), 341. Mary Roth Walsh, “Doctors wanted, no women need apply”: sexual barriers in the medical profession, 1835–1975 (New Haven, Conn., 1977). V. [J.] Strong-Boag, “Canada’s women doctors: feminism constrained,” A not unreasonable claim (L. Kealey), 109–29. Women and medicine in Toronto since 1883: a who’s who, comp. Rose Sheinin and Alan Bakes (Toronto, 1987).