- Suitable for the Wilds: Letters from Northern Alberta, 1929–1931
Janice Dickin McGinnis renders a valuable service in providing this edition of letters by Dr. Mary Percy to her family and friends in England. These letters document the period from June 1929 to January 1931 when the adventurous twenty-five-year-old physician arrived on the Canadian frontier. Feeling stifled in her comfortable Birmingham home, she had answered an advertisement recruiting women to medical postings in the Peace River region of northern Alberta. Soon deposited in a small shack and given charge of a 250-mile district, Percy had to learn everything from how to bake edible biscuits to how to survive brutal winters with temperatures down to −50° F.
Percy’s letters are fresh and immediate. Conversational rather than contemplative, they read like a chat frequently interrupted by the arrival of a patient or the need to stoke up the stove. They are exuberantly sprinkled with exclamation marks, often several deep, with vivid descriptions of her “ripping” adventures, her colorful neighbors, and the land itself—beautiful, silent, and unrelenting.
Percy gained a breadth of medical experiences she would never have had in England. Alone, and separated by a hundred miles of rough terrain from a hospital, she delivered babies, pulled teeth, and tended patients through tuberculosis. Her practice was challenging not in its intellectual difficulty but in its demand for pragmatism amidst poverty and extreme isolation. En route to Canada, she had expressed the hope that she would not have to treat Poles and [End Page 175] Russians. She soon came to appreciate her decidedly non-British patient population, learning to negotiate the unfamiliar customs not only of Russians but of Scandinavians, Germans, Ukrainians, Métis, and native peoples. For historians of medicine, these letters provide a valuable account of frontier medical practice from a woman’s perspective, illustrating in lively detail the way in which medicine was integrated into domestic and community life.
Historian Janice Dickin McGinnis provides a helpful discussion of the historical and historiographic context, but treats this material with a light hand, allowing readers to encounter it for themselves. She offers a charming narrative of her own adventures traveling north to meet the eighty-eight-year-old Percy in 1991. Percy bundled her up by the fire, fed her chocolates, and allowed her to read the original letters. Dickin McGinnis neatly weaves the voice of the twenty-five-year-old with that of the eighty-eight-year-old to fill in the gaps in the story. This edition is a welcome contribution to the history of medicine, of women, and of Northern Canada.