ANGWIN, MARIA LOUISA, educator and physician; b. 21 Sept. 1849 in Blackhead, Conception Bay, Nfld, daughter of the Reverend Thomas Angwin and Louisa Emma Gill; d. 25 April 1898 in Ashland, Mass.
Born into a Methodist family of strong ideals, Maria Louisa Angwin later remarked that she “had always intended to do something – to be somebody.” Nothing is known of her childhood, except that her father was transferred to Nova Scotia during the mid 1850s and by 1865 had settled permanently in Dartmouth. Maria was sent to the ladies’ academy of Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy at Sackville, N.B., in 1866, and she graduated three years later with a mistress of liberal arts diploma.
Although she had initially contemplated becoming a lawyer, Maria gradually changed her mind: “I became convinced of the need of women doctors, and I saw that while earning my living in that way I could help my sex.” Canadian medical schools were not then admitting female students, but a degree could be obtained from several American institutions, notably Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, established in 1868 by doctors Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.
Such training was expensive, especially for a Methodist minister with four sons to educate. Maria solved the problem by raising the necessary funds herself: she attended the Normal School at Truro and then taught in Dartmouth for five years. In 1879 she left for Woman’s Medical College, where she graduated md in June 1882. She then served a year’s internship as an assistant physician at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. Interviewed in August 1883 by a reporter for the Halifax Evening Mail, she commented, “The more I have learned the more I want to know, and the greater the field of medical science appears.” She was then on her way to England, where she attended clinics and lectures at the Royal Free Hospital in London.
On 20 Sept. 1884 Maria Angwin became the first woman licensed to practise medicine in Nova Scotia, although others from the province had earlier taken medical degrees in the United States. She initially saw patients in both Halifax and Dartmouth, but after 1886 she confined herself to a joint residence and office in the central part of Halifax. She was an early telephone subscriber, and patients ringing her doorbell were greeted by a resident parrot announcing, “Someone wants the doctor.” A contemporary remembered her as “a woman of courage ready for any emergency, versatile, afraid of nothing, answering all calls to any section of the city by day or night,” armed, she herself said, with a hat-pin.
It was inevitable that Dr Angwin, as the province’s first female physician, and as a woman with a strong social conscience, would attract attention. As early as 1875 she had given a paper before the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Association defending the right of women to higher education. Later she was strongly influenced by the social philosophy of the Blackwell sisters, who advocated preventive medicine and worked to educate the young, particularly females, in moral and physical hygiene. Such ideas were perhaps no longer new to late-19th-century Halifax, but they were still controversial.
Maria quickly became known for her short hair and her determined stand against alcohol and cigarettes. As a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, she served as superintendent for “scientific temperance instruction” (1889) and for “hygiene and heredity” (1890). In 1894 she spoke on female suffrage and the following year was giving a fortnightly series of lectures on hygiene, some of them presented jointly with Dr Annie Isabel Hamilton, who in 1894 had been the first woman to graduate in medicine from Dalhousie University. In 1895 Maria Angwin wrote an article for the Halifax Herald denouncing the obstacles faced by women who attempted to enter the male-dominated work-force.
Late in 1897, in declining health, she returned to the New York infirmary for additional post-graduate work. She was expected to resume her Halifax practice, but while visiting in Ashland, Mass., she died suddenly following minor surgery. Her will reflected her personal philosophy: small bequests were left to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the ladies’ college at Sackville, and Woman’s Medical College, New York; her nephews were remembered, provided they “remain sober, and moral.” Her practice was taken over by Dr Jane Lambert Heartz, a native Nova Scotian and another alumna of Woman’s Medical College.
The Wesleyan, in its obituary of Maria Angwin, noted the “dull and dogged opposition which pioneers always encounter,” but concluded that “faithful, attentive, conscientious, she labored in her profession far beyond her strength, while her womanly sympathy and medical knowledge won the friendship as well as the trust of her patients.” Even the Maritime Medical News grudgingly acknowledged that she was “greatly respected, not only in her duties as a physician, but also in every work that tended to elevate fallen humanity.”
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.5036. PANL, Vital statistics, vol.52A, 17 Jan. 1850. PANS, MG 20, 356–57; 506, no.20; RG 25, C, 10, no.4. Maritime Medical News (Halifax), 10 (1898): 132, 175. Halifax Herald, 10 Aug. 1895. Morning Herald (Halifax), 13 Aug. 1883, 9 Sept. 1884. Wesleyan (Halifax), 27 April 1898. R. B. Nichols, “Early women doctors of Nova Scotia,” Nova Scotia Medical Bull. (Halifax), 29 (1950): 14–21.