Trees of McGill, and Carrie Derick

By Ingrid Birker

Carrie Derick

Carrie Derick: Canada’s first woman professor, suffragette, social reformer, and founder of McGill’s Genetics Department. Source: Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree”: US poet Joyce Kilmer’s words have become somewhat of a cliché, but this is only because they are true. Few things are more beautiful than the urban forest of McGill in springtime when the buds and blossoms burst forth. If a tree is a poem, then it should be no surprise that the “Trees of McGill” have inspired more than one author to pen a book by that name.

About 90 years ago Canada’s first woman professor, a botanist, gardener, suffragette, social reformer, and founder of McGill’s Genetics Department, wrote the first “Trees of McGill”, a booklet documenting the history and landscaping of the downtown campus.

First published in the McGill News of that year, it was expanded into a booklet of 60 pages and is available in the McGill Libraries. The author, Carrie Derick, had been one of the first women undergraduates at McGill and the first female MA in Botany Department. Derick worked in the Botany Department  for over 30 years, first as a “Part-time Lecturer in Genetics” and then in 1912 the Board of Governors appointed her a full professor, the first woman to receive this status in Canada. Two years earlier she had been one of the first women listed in American Men of Science.

Derick belonged to many professional organizations, including the Botanical Society of America, the American Genetics Association, and the Canadian Public Health Association, which were only just opening their membership to women. Derick published numerous articles on botany, including “The problem of the ‘burn-out’ district of southern Saskatchewan,” and “The early development of the Florideae”. In her 1929 booklet about McGill’s trees she elaborated on the genetics of inheritance as she described the intermediate mutation of Japanese and North American Catalpa trees on campus and  also pushed for  proper landscape management: “The specimen which we have lost should be promptly replaced, especially because the young trees exhibit variations common among the children of hybrids.”

Derick’s legacy in Canadian scientific history rests on more than her career in botany. She was president of the Montreal Suffrage Association from 1913-1919, and in her “witty” public lectures she urged that the “domestic service” be given the status of a profession, and encouraged women to pursue careers in agriculture. In 1914 she supported Annie Langstaff, the first woman to graduate in law at McGill, in her unsuccessful bid to be admitted to the bar in Quebec.

Along with Maude Abbott, another female scientist at McGill, she founded and was a lifelong member of the National Council of Women.

Carrie Derick retired from McGill in 1929 because of poor health, and the university awarded her the honorary title of Professor Emerita. She died in 1941.

Author Ingrid Birker is Science Outreach Coordinator for the Faculty of Science.

On May 7, Bronwyn Chester hosts a Tree Tour – Biodiversity Downtown? The Urban Forest of McGill University on May 7 and May 8 as part of the province-wide outreach series 24 heures de science.

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