REGINA -- The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan has created a collection for Women's History Month to remember a mother and daughter with remarkable stories of strength and resilience.

Dr. Elizabeth Matheson worked as a missionary and later a doctor in the Onion Lake region of Saskatchewan in the late 1800s and the earlier 1900s.

"When you look at the influence that this mother had on her daughter, her daughter became a nursing sister that served during the First World War and through the Spanish Flu pandemic," Nadine Charabin, director of archival services at the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan said. "The service of these two women was really notable and we thought it was worth sharing those stories."


Born in 1866 in Upper Canada, Elizabeth's first worked as a school teacher in Manitoba from 1882-87.

Elizabeth married Rev. John Matheson in 1891. The next year, the couple moved to Onion Lake  – which was in the Northwest Territories at the time because Saskatchewan was not a province until 1905.

Elizabeth returned to school and received her medical degree in 1898 from Trinity College.

"Her husband encouraged her to go and finish her medical training and become this important doctor who could serve a wide community," Charabin said. "He was willing to be there with the family and work with whatever support they could get from the surrounding community to take care of some little kids. I like that together they made that decision and allow her to go and succeed in her career."

elizabeth matheson

Elizabeth returned to Onion Lake and practised in the hospital her husband built for her.

The archives has stories of Elizabeth also travelling great distances to treat people in the region.

There is one story where Elizabeth travelled 120 kilometres in the winter months to treat a young boy with an injured leg. Elizabeth did this journey in a wagon with one of her young children in tow as Elizabeth was breastfeeding at the time.

"Some Indigenous women in their community helped her prepare a patchwork fur robe for her and the baby to keep them warm on this crazy long trip in the dead of winter," Charabin said.

Elizabeth was the first female doctor in Saskatchewan, but she didn't register as a practising physician because that included a trip to Calgary for the exam. Since she was not registered, Elizabeth never received a provincial salary for her work. 

elizabeth matheson

"Dr. Matheson did not see anything remarkable about these actions, to her this was simply part of her duty as a doctor," Charabin said.

Elizabeth Matheson died in 1958 at the age of 92.


Elizabeth was also the mother of nine children. Her eldest child was Gladys Matheson.

Gladys was born in Onion Lake in 1892. She started her nursing education in Prince Albert in 1911 but didn't finish her schooling because wanted to return to Onion Lake to treat people.

Gladys finished her education in 1914 in Winnipeg and was deployed as a nurse to England and then France in 1918. 

"She describes herself as the danger zones," Charabin said. "Just before they get to Ireland, off the coast of Ireland where the German submarines were sinking ships, a ship going down, carrying people just like we're on the ship, she was on."

Gladys' time in Europe is well-documented through overseas diaries she kept and a photo album.

"This hospital is being bombed in the town over to them," Charabin said. "I can't remember how many nursing sisters were killed in bombing one night, she's writing about it and then having to go into dugouts when the bombs are too close to them in the middle of serving their patients."

Gladys' diary also tells the accounts of how people survived the horrible conditions of the war.

"The one thing that's really interesting is the coping mechanisms that she shares indirectly with us through her diaries," Charabin said. "They had to find ways to keep themselves sane under these horrible conditions. She talks about the baseball games and the dances and trying to get away and see some sights even which is hard for me to fathom in the middle of this war. I just think that resilient spirit with and we sort of know where she got it from after knowing the story of Elizabeth Matheson."

Once the war was over, Gladys stayed in Europe and treated patients suffering from the Spanish Flu pandemic.