Carrie Derick

By: Baneen Haideri

Baneen Haideri

Contributing Historian/Student Researcher

Baneen Haideri is a student of the Public History program at York University, focusing on the history of science, and is a budding science curator. With her Biology background, she realizes the value of rich and unchartered history of science, and is on a mission to bring to the forefront, science stories from different cultures. She is most proud of her community work with children, and aspires to bring the knowledge of science with historical lens to her community in creative ways. She is especially proud of her research for the Insulin100 project which highlighted the stories of notable Canadian women in science research and development.

Portrait of Carrie Derick, Professor of Botany, 1892-1941. Photo courtesy of McGill University Archive.

Three decades prior to the birth of Frederick Banting in the formerly named Ontario city of Alliston, around 600km away in the province next door, Carrie Matilda Derick was born in Clarenceville (now Saint-Georges-de-Clarenceville), Québec, on January 14, 1862. Derick is a highly praised figure in Canadian history, and McGill University is credited, by association, for its landmark achievement in Canadian women’s history – to have appointed Derick as the first woman to a full professorship. A close examination of Derick’s intellectual and academic achievements, and her journey to her appointment, especially in contrast with Dr. Banting’s, raises more questions than provide answers with respect to the field of research and development in Canadian institutions.

Carrie Derick received her early education at the Clarenceville Academy and from her teen years, she was an extraordinarily bright and charismatic student. She began teaching at only 15 years of age at the Clarenceville Academy and went on to McGill Normal School in Montréal to be trained as a teacher. She graduated at the age of 19  and was awarded with a J.C. Weston Prize and Prince of Wales Gold Medal. She then returned to Clarenceville Academy as a school principal and later taught in Montréal. Regardless of her success, young Derick felt unsatisfied and knew her talents went beyond being a school principal, and thus she enrolled in McGill University in 1889. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts the very next year in 1890, achieving 94% GPA – the highest at McGill University for that year. Derick also received awards in classics, zoology, botany and natural sciences, as well as the Logan Gold Medal in Natural Sciences. This could have been a defining moment in her life and, had society not placed restrictions upon a woman’s role in academia, perhaps she would have been offered a working position that recognized her brilliance and achievements. Nonetheless, the same year she went on to teach girls at Trafalgar Institute in Montréal. Although Derick’s exceptional undergraduate performance may not have been as defining a moment as she had hoped for in her career, it may have defined for her the momentum to continue moving forward and persevere in her academic journey. As a result, she began a Masters program in Botany at McGill University the following year. As a student, she assisted the Professor of Botany, Dr. David Penhallow, on a Botanical Excursion for the low pay of “a sum not exceeding $200”[i]. She was then hired as McGill University’s first female botany demonstrator, though it was only a part-time position and a compromise on her part, as a demonstrator’s job did not match her qualifications. Furthermore, male demonstrators with a bachelors degree earned between $500 to $750 per year, whereas Derick was hired at a salary of only $250. While completing her degree and working as a demonstrator, she also simultaneously taught math and science at Trafalgar Institute in order to earn a minimum wage. Derick finally received her Masters in Botany in 1896, all while working two jobs.

Carrie Derick, circa June 1920. Photo courtesy of McGill University Archive.

Upon Derick’s graduation, Professor Penhallow, who had been a close witness to Derick’s brilliance, recommended her for a position as full-time lecturer in McGill’s botany department. Penhallow’s recommendation was not accepted by the Board of Governors, who alternatively offered Derick her previously held demonstrator’s post, a clear job demotion, and only promoting her from part-time to a full-time status with a small annual salary of $750. Lord of Strathcona, Donald A. Smith, a businessman who had funded the initiation of women’s education at McGill University, stepped in to authorize payment of an additional $250 to Derick, and thus she was appointed the full-time lecturer position with a $1000 a year salary following much debate. She continued working as a part-time demonstrator for the next eight years. Lecturers at McGill University have been required to carry out research, and Derick’s absence in research as a university faculty member is peculiar. By this point in her academic and career journey, Derick had the ability to make a remarkable discovery or invention, but her research opportunities were diverted to issues regarding earning adequate financial compensation for her work, which she had not received, neither in salary nor in position. In 1904, Derick was finally granted an assistant professorship, with a salary increase of an additional $250, but with the understanding that she would teach an additional summer course. Derick had been using her summers to carry out research abroad, having spent three summers at Harvard University, seven at the Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts and one at London’s Royal College of Science, which is indicative of the lack of research opportunities for her in Canada. In addition, she had completed research at the doctorate level in Germany’s University of Bonn from 1901 to 1902. Unfortunately, she was not awarded a PhD for this work because the university did not grant PhDs to women.

Carrie M. Derick standing outside a building. This photograph may have been taken by journalist Watson Davis at the British Association of Science meeting, Toronto, Canada, August 1924. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

When her colleague and mentor, Professor Penhallow, fell ill in 1909, she assumed his teaching position with only an extra $500 per annum, and when he passed away in 1910, she was given a salary of $2000 – a significantly lower amount compared with other department chairs. Derick continued to run the department until 1912, when she was dismayed to learn that McGill had appointed an American botanist, Francis Lloyd, as the Botany Department chair – at a $3000 a year stipend. Some influential men at the McGill University supported Derick during this ordeal, but in a possible attempt to silence any opposition, she was given the position of Professor of Morphological Botany, a field outside of her research preference and expertise, and without a pay raise. Carrie Derick, however, became McGill University’s and Canada’s first woman to be appointed as a professor. In rather cruel fashion, however, Derick was advised that the title of ‘professor’ was simply a courtesy title that “did not carry with it a seat on faculty, and it did not involve any increase in salary”[ii]. She was asked not to teach as a professor, but rather work as a demonstrator, and was assigned projects by the new chair that were more appropriate for a junior demonstrator. This led to friction, with Derick asserting her rights and voicing her disapproval towards McGill’s botany department. Following the airing of her grievances, the university finally granted a proper professorship to Derick.

In 1928, Derick successfully petitioned to have her title changed to ‘Professor of Comparative Morphology and Genetics’ citing that it would ‘give [her] recognition which [she] earned’[iii]. Derick’s legacy is not of a sensational discovery or invention, rather a legacy of firsts. Her ‘first woman professor’ title may be marked by politics and scepticism, however she was the first to have laid foundations for the study of Genetics in Canada, and the first person to have created an ‘Evolution and Genetics’ course in Canada. Although unjustified, Derick was among the very few women who appeared in American Men of Science magazine in 1910, which was an acknowledgment of her skills. Simultaneously known for her strength of character and commitment to women’s rights, she was also seen as an inconvenience, especially for people that held leadership positions, “How she made me blush, that old maid from McGill“ said Quebec’s Premier, Lomer Gouin, when challenged by Derick for his criticism of birth control.[iv] She was an ardent proponent of family planning, and promoted use of birth control methods in response to large family sizes in Quebec in the earlier half of the 20th century.

Carrie M. Derick, Professor of Botany 1892-1929, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of McGill University Archive.

While she is not known for a significant discovery, nor for a Nobel Prize, Derick’s biography is replete with remarkable accolades. Dr. Banting’s life story, in particular his earlier academic record, shows that personal drive can supersede academic scores given that the system in place provides the platform and adequate resources to make significant discoveries. Derick was known for both her outstanding academic accomplishments from a young age and her drive for research throughout her academic career. She however had to utilize her intellectual capabilities in defiance of “unfulfilled promises of advancement”[v] paving the path for future generations of Canadian women in research and development.

Derick passed away on November 10, 1941 at Royal Victoria College Hospital in Montréal, Québec, having never married nor leaving behind any children to tell her story of perseverance as a woman in science research and development. However, her intellectual legacy, especially by virtue of introducing the subject of evolution and genetics to Canadian Universities will continue to tell her story of determination and resilience. As a co-founder of the National Council of Women, she will be remembered as a pioneer of gender equality and a trailblazer for Canadian women in science.


Ainley, Marianne Gosztonyi. Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science. Montréal: Véhicule Press, 1990.

Ainley, Marianne Gosztonyi, Marelene F. Rayner-Canham, and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham. Creating Complicated Lives: Women and Science at English-Canadian Universities, 1880-1980. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.

Dickinson, T.A. & Guinel, F.C.. “Reflections on Women Scientists Today Drawn from Looking at Carrie Derick, Canada’s First Woman University Professor” in The Canadian Botanical Association (50(3)). Accessed June 1, 2021.

Kurbegovic, Erna and Leung, E. (2013, September 4). Derick, Carrie. Accessed June 1, 2021.

Sarazin, Fiona, and Ingrid Birker. “Carrie Derick.” Accessed April 2, 2021.

[i] Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley, “Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science,” in Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1990), p. 77.

[ii]  Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley, “Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science,” in Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1990), p. 85.

[iii] Marianne Ainley, Marelene Rayner-Canham, and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, “Women and Science in Academe, 1880-1920,” in Creating Complicated Lives: Women and Science at English-Canadian Universities, 1880-1980 (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012), pp. 58-59.

[iv]Carrie’s advocacy for birth control often overlapped with many beliefs aligned with the promotion of eugenics in early 20th century Québec. To read more about this, visit

[v]  Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley, “Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science,” in Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1990), p. 78.