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Onion Lake’s Health Care Hero: Dr. Elizabeth Beckett Matheson

First Female Doctor Portrait
Dr. Elizabeth Matheson (ca. 1920)

March is Women's History Month and the Provincial Archives is celebrating with a spotlight on Dr. Elizabeth Beckett Matheson, Saskatchewan's first female doctor.

Elizabeth Beckett Scott was born in 1866 in Upper Canada (today Ontario). In 1878, her family moved to Manitoba, where she completed high school in Winnipeg and was a schoolteacher from 1882 to 1887.

In 1887, she pursued a career in medicine at the Women's Medical College at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. After her first year, she decided to travel to India as a missionary; however, her time was cut short by malaria and she returned home to Manitoba to recuperate.

Scott married Rev. John Matheson in 1891, and in 1892 they moved to Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, to take up a posting at the Onion Lake Anglican Mission. There, she acted as principal and matron at the Mission school, which provided a primary education to the Indigenous, Métis and settler children in the area. Although the school was a day school, the Mathesons opened their home to many of the children who attended.

Onion Lake was a great distance from the nearest town at the time, North Battleford, which was 100 kilometres away. Because of this distance, there were many local requests for medical attention, and in 1895, Elizabeth Matheson returned to medical school, in Manitoba. She completed her second year at Manitoba Medical College before she withdrew from her studies, this time for the birth of her third child. She then resumed studies at Women's Medical College in Toronto, graduating in 1898 with a medical degree from Trinity College.

First Female Doctor
Elizabeth Matheson, at the time of her marriage (1891)

Dr. Elizabeth Matheson returned to Onion Lake as the first woman doctor in the North-West Territories. She was not, however, the first woman doctor formally registered in the North-West Territories. Registration at that time required the applicant to travel to Calgary to complete an oral examination, so Dr. Matheson opted to forgo registration. She, nevertheless, received a salaried appointment as a government doctor in 1901 in recognition of her work during a smallpox epidemic. In 1904, Dr. Matheson returned to Manitoba Medical College for a refresher course and was finally registered as a doctor in the North-West Territories. 

Dr. Matheson practised medicine in Onion Lake for 20 years. Though her medical services centred on the Mission school, she sometimes travelled great distances to communities such as Frog Lake to provide medical care. One story often told about Dr. Matheson's dedication to her work as a doctor was the time she travelled 120 kilometres through remote backcountry, in winter, carrying her baby, in order to treat a young boy's badly broken leg. Dr. Matheson did not see anything remarkable about these actions – to her, this was simply part of her duty as a doctor.

Dr. Matheson remained at the Onion Lake Mission for a year following the death of her husband, before relocating to Winnipeg in 1918, where she took up a post as the Assistant Medical Inspector for Winnipeg Public Schools. She remained in that position until she retired in 1941, at 75 years old.

Dr. Elizabeth Matheson passed away in 1958 at the age of 92 years.

An exhibit featuring Dr. Elizabeth Matheson is on display at the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan during the month of March. It also serves as a tribute to today's Health Care Heroes, serving our province during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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