Jessie Boyd Scriver was born in Montreal in 1894 but lived most of her life in Westmount. Her father Robert was associated with the Ogilvie Flour Mills and her mother had been a teacher in upper New York state. Jessie and her sister Bernice grew up surrounded by music and art, her mother’s particular passions. After graduating from the High School of Montreal, it was a natural choice for Jessie to study music and education at McGill University. Graduating with a BA in 1915, Jessie obtained a teaching job at an elementary school in Montreal. After a successful first year, Jessie was offered two teaching positions overseas, in Japan and in France. Seeking her father’s opinion, Robert Boyd suggested instead that Jessie explore a medical career since doctors were in demand for the war effort. The idea of serving Canada by treating the wounded appealed to Jessie despite having doubts about her ability to become a doctor. It was her father’s encouraging words “you can do anything you set out to do if you are willing to work hard enough” that set her on a new path in life.
It was 1917 and World War I was drawing the young men from Canadian universities for active duty. At this time, McGill University had steadfastly refused admission to women in the Faculty of Medicine but now places were available. On the advice of Dr. Robert Ruttan, Chairman of the Department of Chemistry, Jessie and three other intrepid female McGill graduates, registered as “partial” B.Sc. students taking first year medical courses. Their hard work during that first year was rewarded as all four women were accepted as full-time second-year students in the Faculty of Medicine when McGill University decided to finally admit women into the programme the following year.
Jessie and her female colleagues not only worked diligently the next four years but also had to “walk very warily” among their male colleagues. While studying one evening with a female colleague at her home at 4235 Dorchester in Westmount, a group of male students from the Undergraduate Medical Society called on them to withdraw from Medicine. They refused and in 1922 McGill University graduated its first five women medical students with Jessie Boyd achieving the second highest mark overall in a class of 126 medical students. She also won the Wood Gold Medal for the best examination in the Clinical Branches.
Upon graduation, Dr. Jessie interned at the Royal Victoria Hospital where she trained in the children’s ward. In 1924, Jessie Boyd married Dr. Walter Scriver whom she had known from high school and university. When he was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Jessie accepted a position at the Boston Children’s Hospital where she furthered her specialty in clinical pediatrics. They returned in 1926 and resided in Westmount at 188 The Boulevard, both receiving positions at the newly established McGill University Medical Clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Dr. Jessie’s research contributed to making pediatrics a separate branch of medicine. It was during this time that she made her landmark discovery on sickle-cell anaemia, work that is still cited by researchers. In 1930, her only child Charles Robert Scriver was born. He would later follow his parents’ footsteps in science and medicine.
Dr. Jessie’s career continued to flourish and to garner honours: she was the first female pediatrician in Montreal; the first woman to serve as president of the Canadian Pediatric Society in 1952; a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (Canada) and of the American Academy of Pediatrics; an honorary fellow in the British Pediatric Association; and a senior of the Canadian Medical Association. She was the first women to be Head of a Department when she accepted the nomination of Paediatrician in Charge at the Royal Victoria Hospital and later spent most of her career at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. She was a role model to her medical students as an associate professor of pediatrics at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine.
Dr. Jessie also maintained a thriving private practice in Westmount where she made house calls all across Montreal and took phone calls during evenings and weekends. By this time, the Scriver family was living at 510 Roslyn and would keep this residence for over 35 years. While retiring from practice at the age of 73 in 1967, Dr. Jessie remained active in the medical field earning an honorary doctor of science degree from McGill (Faculty of Medicine) for her contributions as physician, academic and citizen in 1979. She was the Archivist at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and later published a book on its history in 1979. She continued to lecture at McGill, was a Friend of the Osler Library, and with her son Charles established The Scriver Family Visiting Professorship in Genetic Medicine in 1999. Her message to medical students and staff at an Osler Society meeting in 1985 was to “remember foremost our duties and responsibilities to the patient as physicians” a principle that she embodied in her 41 years as a pediatrician.
Dr. Jessie Boyd Scriver died on May 13th, 2000 at the age of 105 years.