#52Ancestors: Education

There are so many interesting stories I’ve found within my family tree, but there is one woman who is a true inspiration to me. My first cousin four times removed, Mary Lee Edward.

Mary Lee Edward was born on the 14th of September 1885 in Petrolia, Lambton, Ontario, Canada. She was the only daughter of Alexander Clark Edward and Jennie Gertrude Dawson and the eldest of six children. Her father, Alexander, was an oil operator and producer who had emigrated to Canada from Edinburgh in Scotland. The family lived on a farm in the township of Enniskillen in East Lambton. By 1908, Alexander had become the Mayor of Petrolia and a member of the Public School Board.

Working in the oil industry indicates to me that Alexander and Jennie Edward had some money behind them. Enough money to make sure their daughter received an excellent education. An education that would take her from her home in Petrolia to the USA and to the Western Front.

Through her life, Mary Lee was fondly known to her family and friends as “Lee”. She was recorded on the 1901 census as Lee Edward and in some of the publications from her time at university she was recorded as “Miss Edward”, “Miss Mary Lee Edward” and “Miss Lee Edward”.

Mary Lee Edward, Canada and Beyond

After leaving school, Mary Lee studied Biological and Physical Science at the University of Toronto. She faced physical and verbal discrimination from her male peers who would throw chalk and chalk brushes at her and abuse through cat calling and singing a song called “Hop Along Sister Mary”.

Mary Lee was involved in other aspects of university life beyond the classroom. She was the Curator at the Literary Society from 1902 and a Member Executive of the Natural Science Association. She became part of the Sigma Chapter, Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority in 1905. On the inside cover of the 1906 Torontonensis on Internet Archives, near the bottom amongst the other student signatures, is the signature for “Lee Edward”!

She graduated with a B. A. in Assistant Demonstrator in Anatomy and in Physiology in 1906 after studying for four years. She then went onto study an M. B. and graduated in 1908; the first female medical student to graduate from the University of Toronto. A very talented and ambitious woman. She was offered a research scholarship at the University of Toronto, though there was no Women’s College Hospital then. She was sent away to a rural part of the country and rarely saw her advisor. She decided to leave Canada for better opportunities and headed over the border into the United States.

Mary Lee began her career working in a women’s hospital in Philadelphia before moving on to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. While working in New York, she was offered another scholarship, a $1,000 scholarship to study in Vienna in Austria; an opportunity she couldn’t turn down. She not only advanced in her skills in medicine but also learnt the German language. When she returned to New York, she was appointed the House Physician in the Infirmary for Women and Children.

In 1917, the U.S.A. became involved in World War 1 and men who were working within hospitals enlisted to help on the Western Front. Mary Lee took over a man’s job working in the operating theater of the Hospital for Ruptured and Crippled in New York. This opportunity and learning experience would end up becoming useful later that year when Dr Mary Lee Edward and Dr Caroline Finley from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children organised the Women’s Overseas Hospitals and found themselves in France working on the Western Front.

Dr Mary Lee Edward’s story doesn’t end there, but I will continue her amazing story in another blog. Her role in WW1 was incredible! All of her educational experiences through the universities in Canada and Austria, her time working in the Hospital for Ruptured and Crippled in New York and her comradery with others were lessons that helped her through possibly one of the most difficult times in her life!

I’ve still lots more to investigate into the life of Dr Mary Lee Edward during her time at university. I know nothing of her time at school. I am slowly building a picture of a very intelligent, ambitious and friendly woman with her involvement in societies even after she left university. This blog was just a taster into her life and I hope you have found her to be as fascinating as I have!

There is a book on her life which was published by one of her nephews in the 1970s that I have been unable to get a hold of as a physical or digital copy, but believe it has a lot of her own writings and thoughts in it too. I hope one day to track one down and read about her experiences through her own words.


This blog is part of Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestor challenge. If you’re blogging about your own family history, do check out the weekly themes and see if you can get yourself involved. It’s a lot of fun to do and there are a lot of bloggers already taking part (it’s worth looking for #52Ancestor hashtag on WordPress and on social media).

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