Friday, March 25, 2022
Salute to Canadian Heroines, Part 4: Frances Oldham Kelsey
Having known from childhood that she wanted to be a scientist, Frances Oldham attended St. Margaret’s School and Victoria College before obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees from McGill University in the 1930s. After grad, the brilliant woman applied for a fellowship under a renowned pharmacology researcher at the University of Chicago. Thrilled to be accepted, she couldn’t help noticing that the researcher had addressed his acceptance letter to “Mr. Oldham.”
Her professor encouraged her to accept the position despite the misunderstanding. Frances signed the offer, adding “Miss” in parenthesis before her name.
The appalled researcher honored his offer, despite his chagrin at not recognizing the feminine spelling of Frances. In Frances’s words, “When a woman took a job in those days, she was made to feel as if she was depriving a man of the ability to support his wife and child.”
Frances’s contribution to synthetic cures for malaria proved her entitlement to the posting. In 1938 she graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in pharmacology. She later married, took her husband’s last name (Kelsey), birthed two daughters, and earned her medical degree. By 1960, the family had moved to Washington, DC where Frances worked for the Food and Drug Administration.
By then, a sleeping pill called Kevadon, manufactured by William S. Merrell Company and now known as thalidomide, was being prescribed around the world to pregnant women to combat morning sickness. Having seen the effects of malaria pills on unborn children, Frances refused to approve the drug for pregnant women until more studies were completed. Pressure from the drug company intensified, but Frances stood her ground. A two-year battle ensued, during which time stories emerged out of the UK and Germany. Women who’d taken the drug were giving birth to babies with missing limbs. In Frances’s homeland of Canada, 115 infants were born before the abnormalities were officially linked to the drug.
By the time the FDA banned thalidomide in the United States, approximately 100,000 babies with malformations had been born in forty-six countries.
On July 15, 1962, the front-page story in The Washington Post caught attention with the headline, “Heroine of FDS Keeps Bad Drug Off the Market.” Dr. Kelsey was thrust into the limelight. She received the highest honor available to a civilian, the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Services, from the hand of John F. Kennedy.
Frances continued her work with the FDA until the age of ninety. (In subsequent decades, thalidomide proved useful in the treatment of leprosy, AIDS, and certain cancers. The drug has benefited millions of patients around the world.)
The “Kelsey Award” is bestowed on those deserving of recognition in the field. You can find her name in the US National Women’s Hall of Fame, and at the Frances Kelsey Secondary School in her hometown of Cobble Hill, BC. In June 2015, she received the Order of Canada. At that event, Mercédes Benegbi, then head of the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada, praised Kelsey for refusing to bend to pressure from drug companies. “To us,” she said, “she was always our heroine, even if what she did was in another country.”
Frances Kelsey died in 2015 at the age of 101.
Friday, March 18, 2022
Canadian Heroines, Part 3: Adelaide Hunter Hoodless
I’m a firm believer in a prayer that goes, “God, if I must go through this pain anyway, please use it for good somehow. Don’t waste it.” I wonder if Adelaide Hoodless prayed something similar as she grieved the loss of her fourteen-month-old son, John.
Adelaide Hunter was born in St. George, Brant County (now part of Ontario) in 1857, the youngest of thirteen children. Shortly after her birth, her father died. Adelaide grew up experiencing first-hand the challenges of poverty and farm life. At 23, she married John Hoodless and enjoyed a more prosperous life with this successful furniture manufacturer. Four children joined the family. When baby John died in 1889, Adelaide felt appalled to learn the cause of his death was from drinking contaminated milk. Although pasteurization was understood at the time, it was not mandatory. Adelaide fought for this mandate with Hamilton area dairies. She won.
The tragedy drove Adelaide to become involved in helping other women understand nutrition and sanitation. She convinced her local school board to send students to the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) to take cooking classes. Wanting to ensure that mothers knew how to prevent deaths like John’s, she devoted herself to the education of women. She established and taught classes in domestic science through the Hamilton YWCA where she served as president. In 1895, she founded the Canadian National YWCA.
Driven by her passion, Adelaide went on to write a textbook on the importance of hygiene. Public School Domestic Science became known as the “Little Red Book.” Since teachers would be needed for the course, she established a normal school specifically for this purpose.
At the time, Canadian society did not consider it proper for a woman to speak from a platform. However, when her friend Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor-General, gave a public address, the door opened for Adelaide. The pair created the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1897 and co-founded the first Women’s Institute in Stoney Creek, Ontario. The intense need for this type of organization became so evident that by 1907, five hundred branches of the Women’s Institute existed across Canada. The largest organization of Canadian women, its movement spread. In 1933 the Associated Country Women of the World was formed in Stockholm. Her involvement took Adelaide to international conferences where she spoke, promoting quality of life for women and their families through household and public sanitation improvements. This led to social opportunities and continuing education for women as well. She even met Queen Victoria in London.
What Adelaide fought for most passionately is summarized in her own words. “The management of the home has more to do in the molding of character than any other influence, owing to the large place it fills in the early life of the individual during the most plastic state of development. We are, therefore, justified in an effort to secure a place for home economics or domestic science in the educational institutions of this country.”
One day before her fifty-second birthday in 1910, Adelaide Hunter Hoodless was addressing members of the Federation of Women’s Clubs in Toronto when she collapsed and died of heart failure. For one so young, she accomplished much—all sprung from the deepest pain a mother can experience.
The Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada purchased Adelaide’s childhood home. The homestead was designated a national historic site in 1995. You can visit the museum in St. George, Ontario or take a virtual tour HERE.
Friday, March 11, 2022
Salute to Canadian Heroines, Part 2: Asayo Murakami
So much can be buried in silence.
Imagine, at the age of 26, setting sail for a foreign land whose language and customs you did not know in order to meet for the first time the spouse you married by proxy. Imagine arriving and having to search the docks for the face you’d seen only in a picture. Imagine realizing right away the person is not your type. Imagine calling off the marriage and having to work for three years to repay the $250 he paid for your voyage. Imagine doing all this while carrying a heartbreaking secret that would not be revealed for another 75 years.
Such was the case for Asayo Murakami, one of 6,000 “picture brides” who came to Canada from Japan between 1908 and 1924 seeking a better life. Though many men had already made the trip, they now sought partners from home through these arranged marriages.
Having rejected her match, returning to Japan was not an option for Asayo. She worked in strawberry fields and salmon canneries in B.C. until she’d paid her debt. Once free, she married a widower, Otokichi Murakami, and became stepmother to his two children.
Eight more children joined the family over the next 18 years. While Otokichi built boats and fished, Asayo grew massive flower gardens at their home in Steveston while she continued to work in the produce and canneries industry. I doubt she found much time to play one of the only possessions she brought with her from Japan, her cherished violin.
Asayo and Otokichi Murakami
Life changed abruptly on December 7, 1941, when Japan dropped bombs on Hawaii. By February of 1942, all Japanese Canadians within 100 miles of Canada’s west coast were under strict curfews, their radios, cars, fishing boats, and cameras confiscated. By March, they were moved to the interior of BC to work in road camps or internment camps for what they believed would last “a couple of months.” Some came to the prairies to work on farms.
The Murakami family spent the remainder of the war working on a sugar beet farm near Letellier, Manitoba. Having lost their coastal home, they moved to Alberta after the war and worked on a potato farm until they retired in 1967. Two years later, Otokichi died.
Asayo lived on her own for another 27 years, then lived out her days in a Calgary nursing home. Not until after her hundredth birthday did she reveal the deepest secrets about her life in Japan. Asayo had been married before. Her husband came from the prominent Ishibashi family. After the births of two healthy daughters, Asayo birthed a boy in 1921. Sadly, he died shortly after. Because of this perceived inability to bear a healthy heir, her in-laws dissolved the marriage. Asayo’s young daughters were sent to live with their paternal grandmother. When she died in 1926, the girls went to separate families where they were told their parents died in the Kanto earthquake in 1923. By this time, the heartbroken Asayo lived in Canada and knew nothing of their whereabouts. She carried pictures of the girls, Fumiko and Chieko, who were six and four the last time she saw them.
Upon hearing this story, Asayo’s Canadian children wondered whether to believe her. A lengthy pursuit of these long-lost daughters involved several trips to Japan for Asayo’s daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. Eventually, they learned Fumiko died in 1996. In 1999, they found Chieko, who had never heard the true story of her birth mother.
In 2001, Asayo’s granddaughter Linda Ohama released a poignant and heartbreaking documentary about her “Obachan” (grandmother). This 90-minute film, Obachan’s Garden, includes the emotional reunion. You can view it for free on the National Film Board of Canada’s website, HERE.
Friday, March 4, 2022
Salute to Canadian Heroines, Part 1: Edith Monture
Since International Women’s Day falls in March, I thought I’d write a blog post on a few Canadian Heroines I’ve read about recently. When I began to learn how many worthy heroines we claim, I knew I’d need to write an entire series—possibly every March for years to come! I had not heard of these women before, but I certainly should have. Do you know about the remarkable Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture? How about just Edith Monture?
On April 10, 1890, Edith was born to Mohawk parents on Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario. The youngest of eight children and considered a gifted student, Edith broke boundaries for females—Indigenous or otherwise—by graduating from high school. She then began applying to Ontario nursing schools, only to discover most Canadian nursing programs excluded Indigenous women. The determined young woman began applying to schools in the United States. The New Rochelle Nursing School in New York accepted her and she graduated in 1914, first in her class. Boy, I bet those other schools regretted rejecting her.
At the age of 27, Edith and 14 other Canadians volunteered with the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. One of the few Indigenous women to serve overseas with this Corps during WWI, Edith returned to her reserve before leaving for France. With many dying in the war, her community didn’t expect her to return. They gifted her with ceremonial Mohawk burial wear.
Edith worked as a nurse in Vittel, France, treating soldiers injured in gas attacks and trench warfare. At times, she walked across battlegrounds looking for wounded. One of her diary entries describes a 14-hour shift during which a 20-year-old patient to whom she’d grown attached as a big sister, died.
“My heart was broken. Cried most of the day and could not sleep.”
Edith returned to her reserve after the war and married Claybran Monture. They had four children and a fifth who died in infancy. Edith became an advocate for better Indigenous health care, working as a nurse and midwife on the reserve until she turned 65.
Although Indigenous women as a whole could not legally vote in federal elections until 1960, the Military Service Act of 1917 gave Edith voting rights because of her status as a wartime nurse. She became the first female Status Indian and registered band member to gain the right to vote.
Edith’s local newspaper, The Grand River Sachem, interviewed her at age 93. Her mind proved crystal clear as she described her war memories. “We would walk right over where there had been fighting. It was an awful sight — buildings in rubble, trees burnt, spent shells all over the place, whole towns blown up.”
Edith died a week before her 106th birthday and is buried in St. John’s Anglican Cemetery on the Six Nations reserve. Shortly before she passed, her granddaughter, Terri L. Monture, transcribed Edith’s diary from her year in France into digital form for the sake of her 14 grandchildren, numerous great-grandchildren, and other young Indigenous people. In her introductory remarks, Terri wrote of her grandmother, “That the events of one year should be the defining experience of her long, long life is telling in how incredibly significant it really was, and how powerful the memory of that hellish year.”
Edith’s grandson, John Moses, said, “It’s a tremendous source of pride because I know that for many years she was seen as a role model by a number of other nurses.” His mother, Edith’s daughter Helen, also became a nurse and one of the founding members of the Canadian Indigenous Nurses Association. Today, Brantford has both a street and a park named for Edith Monture.