It's April so it's time for our members to help us blog through the 2020 A-Z Blogging Challenge. Our chosen theme this year is Employment, also the topic of our Shared Endeavour where our members are encouraged to research employment within their one-place study. Today's entry is from M. Diane Rogers.

In the 1880s, when Isabelle McTavish’s family arrived, Newdale, Manitoba, Canada (about 150 miles/245 km northwest of Winnipeg), was a new and growing farming area. Her father John, a farmer and entrepreneur, taught school at Newdale, but died at work in 1891. After this, life would have been difficult for his widow, Catherine Jane (née Waddell), left to raise Isabelle, her sister Annie, and her two brothers John and James. (Her brother Thomas died young.)

Isabelle McTavish 1881-1953
Isabelle McTavish 1881-1953

Isabelle took work as a teacher in a one room school, as many young women did, but no doubt to some people’s surprise, she soon entered Manitoba Medical College in Winnipeg. In 1915, she was graduated as a doctor along with Frances Gertrude McGill, like Isabelle, born in Minnedosa, Manitoba.   Dr. Lavinia Fraser McPhee Green, a 1898 graduate, hosted a special dinner for Isabelle, Frances, and Dr. Edith Ross, a 1913 grad.

By the fall, Isabelle McTavish was off to China as a medical missionary appointed by the Presbyterian Church of Canada (after 1925 the United Church of Canada). There immediately she had to learn the language to communicate with staff and patients. Until 1947, with brief periods away, and once in 1927 due to civil war being evacuated back to Canada, she continued to work as a doctor in China – in North Honan. And then once more in China, then till 1950, in Canada.

In China in the 1920's, she was at a women’s hospital with another missionary doctor under difficult conditions, training local people and later nurses from Canada. She also provided medical care for other Canadian missionaries.  For James Mellon Menzies’ migraines, she prescribed “light reading”1 which he said allowed him to rest.  Menzies may be better known now for his archaeological work in China. Decades later, she helped to pack up the artefacts for safekeeping.

Later in Honan, she was the only woman doctor. She did surgery and obstetrics, and operated a clinic for children and women.  One 1938 Winnipeg newspaper interviewed Miss Margaret R Gay, Superintendent of Nursing at the Mission, who described “a sunny day” in May 1936 at the United Church Mission Public Health Centre, Weihwei, China when 600 babies under two were examined by Canadian and Chinese medical staff  in Honan’s first baby show. Isabelle was in charge of the hospital in 1938..2  In 1940, Isabelle and the other missionary workers assisted flood refugees.

Again in 1942, she and others were finally allowed by Japanese authorities to evacuate to Canada, although apparently she was reluctant to do so.

From 1942 to 1946, in Canada she served briefly at the United Church Bella Bella, BC hospital, then at the Bonnyville General Hospital in Alberta, long a project of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church of Canada.

In 1946, she returned to China to help re-open the hospital at Changte. She left China for the last time in 1949 and returned home to Newdale, but soon moved to Winnipeg. She continued to speak, usually to women’s groups, on missionary and medical work in China, and attended conferences in Canada and the USA.  According to McTavish's obituary, the Chinese government honoured her for her work with the Order of Mercy Decoration Medal, 2nd Degree.3 Her name is still remembered in China today.

McTavish never practiced near Newdale as a doctor as far as I know, but my mother said she did attend my great grandmother when she was dying at home; the Newdale doctor was away. But Isabelle McTavish must have spent much of her furlough time in Manitoba helping to raise awareness and money for the work in China. My mother remembered her doing so, and I still have a treasured Chinese paper umbrella which Isabelle sold (or raffled) to raise funds. It seems she was in touch with family and friends all her life; my grandmother in Newdale kept up with her activities in China.

I wonder now if some of her letters from China were about genealogy. I believe she submitted information to the McTavish Clan and back in Canada in the 1950s, she was active in at least one McTavish Reunion, inspiring one young man to begin genealogy research.4

McTavish Newdale Oldale Cemetery 2008
McTavish Newdale Oldale Cemetery 2008

In January of 1953, after a lifetime of helping others, she died in Winnipeg and was buried in Newdale in the McTavish family plot (Oldale Cemetery). Chimes were placed in the Newdale United Church in her memory. And the Manitoba Historical Society has named her one of the “Memorable Manitobians”.


  1. Cross Culture and Faith: The Life and Work of James Mellon Menzies by Linfu Dong, University of Toronto Press, 2005, page 157.
  2. Winnipeg Tribune, Canada, Friday, 12 Aug 1938, page 8.
  3. Newdale 1870-1970, Newdale Historical Society, [1970]. “Doctor Isabelle McTavish”, pages 146-7.
  4. Personal communication, 2008.

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