Dr. Mary Percy Jackson

 

Dr. Mary is portrayed by Louise Eisner

By the late 1800’s the American Wild West was considered “settled”.  However, the Canadian West was still very “wild”.  Canada became a dominion in 1867, but by the later decades of the nineteenth century, her population was still primarily in the eastern provinces.  In a bid to secure the western provinces, the Canadian government began a fervent campaign to attract immigrants west.  While there had been smaller, earlier waves of settlers to the west, the largest by far was the 1897-1929 wave of European immigrants.  Successful settlement meant attracting families.  Families required access to medical care, so the government began aggressively recruiting European doctors.

 

Having recently graduated with her medical degree, and working at a hospital in Birmingham, UK,  Dr. Mary Percy was leafing through a  British Medical Journal  when she came upon an advertisement that intrigued her.  

 

It read:

February 23, 1929

Strong energetic Medical Women with post-graduate experience in Midwifery, wanted for country work in Western Canada, under the Provincial Government Department of Health.   

 

Upon requesting more information, Dr. Percy was informed:  

 

The areas are very isolated, in northern Alberta, without proper roads, without telephones, many miles from hospitals, and the doctors will have to be able to care for all types of emergencies without help.  The ability to ride a saddle horse would be a great advantage.  

 

The prospect of doctoring on horseback in a remote area of northern forest near the Rocky Mountains sounded exciting and exotic and Dr. Percy applied immediately.  She was hired forthwith and sailed for Canada.  After landing in Quebec, she took the train west to Edmonton, a second train north to Peace River Town, and finally a paddle-wheel steam boat down the Peace River to Battle River Prairie - 400 miles north of Edmonton.  Dr. Percy’s luggage and medical supplies were then transferred by horse and wagon to her new home/medical office/surgical room - a shack on the Notikewin River.  An old narrow trail ran past her front door - the main road through the district.

 

A meeting was immediately called for all settlers in the area who understood English and Dr. Percy was introduced as the new Government District Doctor to the group of men (only men) that assembled.  The doctor needed a horse, so a hat was passed around and thirty one-dollar bills were collected.  That was about all the money there was in the district at the time and the men assured Dr. Percy that it would be enough to buy her a good gelding. Buying a mare would be too risky as there were too many stallions running loose.  The district still had “Open Herd Law”, allowing livestock to run free through the territory.  There were about 500 horses running loose in the district when Dr. Percy arrived in northern Alberta.

 

Dr. Percy was soon presented with a fine, and famous, gelding to ferry her to patients.  “Dan” had won district races for four consecutive years, so was deemed the most appropriate mount for the doctor to attend to urgent cases.  A good mount was essential for delivering medical care in the district.  An average day of doctoring included 20 miles of riding, but there were 40 mile days too.  Having arrived from the UK, Dr. Percy felt overpowered by the immense size of Canada.  Her shack was remote, shut in on every side by bush and forest and muskeg, all unmapped and untouched.  Her journey from England to northern Alberta seemed to have turned the clock back a century.

 

Broken bones, dislocated joints, axe-severed feet and toes were common cases as settlers arrived to homestead.  As families began arriving, more and more maternity care was required.  Emergency surgery was carried out on the kitchen table using pure chloroform for anaesthetic.  Dr. Percy treated patients with dysentery, pneumonia, small pox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis.  She also performed tooth extractions, as there were no dentists in the district.  

 

Dr. Percy’s patients included a large aboriginal population in addition to immigrants primarily from Germany, Russia, and Poland, most with no knowledge of English.  Communicating with patients could be challenging!  But everyone knew and trusted the “Doc” and she delivered essential medical care to northern Alberta communities for almost 50 years.

 

A few years after arriving at Battle River Prairie, Dr. Percy married Frank Jackson - a trapper, fur trader and homesteader near Keg River.  Together, in addition to medical practice, they raised a family, developed an Master Farm (recognized and awarded by the Alberta Government), and advanced public education by securing government funding, building the first school in the district and recruiting teachers. As leaders in the community they were very instrumental in petitioning the province for assistance on several fonts.  

 

Tuberculosis was brought to North America by Europeans and it ravaged the northern aboriginal populations.  There were no diagnostic tests available, no vaccines and no treatments.  Transmitted by airborne particles, in water droplets from coughing or sneezing, the disease decimated native families in particular. Dr. Percy Jackson’s education campaign regarding disease transmission, together with a change in government policy finally allowing aboriginals to be admitted to government sanatoriums, helped to finally stem the tide of tuberculosis in northern communities.

 

When a rabies epidemic swept into Alberta from the Northwest Territories in the wake of monstrous forest fire, scores of wild and domestic animals began dieing of the disease, and infection began spreading to the human population.  Dr. Percy Jackson began petitioning the government for assistance with vaccines and treatments and outbreak management.  Provincial health authorities were reluctant, as they didn’t want to cause a “rabies panic”, nor did they want to be responsible for reimbursing farmers for livestock lost to the disease.  Finally the Federal Government took notice and Alberta introduced the largest rabies control program ever undertaken on the continent. The program proved effective and Alberta has been largely rabies free since that epidemic.

 

Dr. Mary Percy Jackson’s immense contributions to settling the Canadian West were recognized and remembered with numerous awards and distinctions.  The K-12 school in Keg River was named the Dr. Mary Jackson School in recognition of her contributions to education in the north. One of her most prized recognitions was the award of “Woman of the Year” for “The Voice of Native Women”.  In the north the First Nations people had been her patients, her neighbours and her friends, and she was deeply moved by the honour of being named “Woman of the Year” by native women.   Her distinguished awards included the Alberta Order of Excellence, the Centennial Medal of Canada and finally, the Officer of the Order of Canada, all in recognition of her valuable service to the province and the nation.  Dr. Mary Percy Jackson has been the subject of journal articles, books and films, and her legacy lives on as an extraordinary “Woman of the Wild Canadian West”.

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