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Carrie Derick

Photograph of Carrie Derick

(1862 - 1941)



First female university professor in Canada

Known primarily for becoming Canada's first female university professor in 1912, Carrie Derick's life cannot be summed up only by her academic trailblazing. As well as a valued teacher, she was a lifelong student, a social activist and volunteer, and a writer on a wide range of topics.

Although Carrie Derick lived during the first years when Canadian women were permitted to earn university degrees or to have careers, she pursued both with determination. She seems to have had a very clear vision of what she wanted to achieve in life, and to have kept to her path despite numerous setbacks. Writings from later in her life show that she looked back on the difficulties she and others faced with a dry sense of humour.

A pioneer in education and science, Carrie Derick came to her profession early. Born in 1862 in Clarenceville, Quebec, by the age of fifteen she was teaching at the local school. She graduated from teacher's college in Montreal in 1881 as the Prince of Wales Gold Medal winner, and returned to the Clarenceville Academy as principal at only nineteen years old. By 1883 she was teaching in Montreal and in 1887 she entered second year at McGill University, only three years after women had first been admitted to that institution. She graduated in 1890 with First Rank Honours in Natural Science and won the Logan Gold Medal. Her average of 94% was the top in the school that year.

After graduation she worked at McGill as a part-time demonstrator, earning the distinction of becoming the first woman on the instructional staff there. In 1896 she received her Master's degree, and for many years after spent her vacations doing research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, or studying at Harvard, the Royal Academy of Science in England, and the University of Bonn. In Germany she did enough research to qualify for a PhD, but at that time the University of Bonn did not grant doctorates to women.

After she earned her Master's, although the chair of the department recommended that she be promoted to lecturer, she was offered only a full-time position as demonstrator. Derick refused the offer, stating that she could not afford to give up her other teaching jobs, and the promotion was eventually authorized. She worked as a lecturer until 1904, when she was made an assistant professor after she protested that the board had repeatedly delayed her promotion.

When the chair of the Department of Botany died in 1910, Derick assumed his role on a temporary basis. However, in 1912 the McGill administration decided to open the position for competition and she was forced to apply for the job she had been doing for two years. Someone else eventually won the chair, despite some strong support for Derick as the home candidate.

Perhaps because they were afraid of losing Derick, the board appointed her Professor of Morphological Botany. This was something of a symbolic title as she had no seat on the faculty and did not receive a pay raise. She regarded her own appointment as a dubious distinction, noting particularly that Morphology was not her area of expertise. Later she successfully petitioned to have the title changed to Professor of Comparative Morphology and Genetics to better reflect her interests. She created a course in "Evolution and Genetics" that became the first of its kind at McGill. Evolution had been an extremely controversial topic during her own undergraduate education, and genetics was still an emerging field. Derick's class was groundbreaking.

As well as teaching and doing research, Derick published numerous articles on botany, including "The problem of the 'burn-out' district of southern Saskatchewan," "The early development of the Florideae," and "The trees of McGill University." Many articles were aimed at the scientific community, earning her the respect of colleagues around the world and the distinction of appearing in the 1910 edition of American men of science. Others were intended to bring an understanding of nature to a general audience. In addition, she wrote biographical sketches and political essays.

At the same time that she was leading a busy and sometimes difficult academic life, Derick was deeply involved in social activism. Her main interests were women's suffrage and education, but she worked for many causes throughout her life. Her energy and commitment are reflected in a partial list of the organizations she was involved with: the Local Council of Women (Montreal); the Protestant Committee of the Council of Education; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the Montreal Suffrage Association; the National Council of Education; the Federation of University Women of Canada; and the Montreal Folklore Society.

Carrie Derick retired from McGill in 1929 due to ill health and was honoured at that time by being made the first female professor emeritus in Canada. She died in 1941, and one obituary stated that Carrie Derick "had gained knowledge for herself, and . . . believed that her knowledge was a possession to be used for the service of mankind." (Byers 1942).


Byers, Mrs. A. F. — "The late Miss Carrie Derick". — McGill news. — Montreal : Graduates' Society of McGill University, (Summer 1942). — P.13-14

"Carrie M. Derick, educator, is dead". — Montreal gazette. — (November 11, 1941). — P.14

Derick, Carrie M. — A few notes on Canadian plant-lore [online]. — Early Canadiana online. — [Cited June 21, 2001]. — Originally published: Montreal : [s.n.] 1897.  — Access:

______.  — "In the 80's". — Old McGill 1927. — [Montreal : s.n., 1897- ]. — P. 200, 350, 356

______.  — Notes on the development of the holdfasts of certain Florideae [online]. — Early Canadiana online. —  [Cited June 21, 2001]. — Originally published: Montreal : [s.n.], 1900. — Access:

______. — "Professions open to women". — Women of Canada : their life and work. — [Montreal? : s.n., 1900?] — P. 57-62

Gillett, Margaret. — "Carrie Derick (1862-1941) and the chair of botany at McGill". — Despite the odds : essays on Canadian women and science. — Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley, ed. — Montreal : Véhicule Press, 1990. — P. 74-87

Gillett, Margaret. — We walked very warily : a history of women at McGill. — Montreal : Eden Press Women's Publications, 1981. — 476 p.

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