Overcoming hurdles: The Life of Eleanor McQuarrie, D.V.M.

By Ian McKechnie

Life had changed in untold ways for Lindsay residents by the mid-1940s, particularly in terms of how they got around. Save for the odd wagon belonging to a milkman, internal combustion vehicles had long since displaced the horse-drawn traffic of years gone by. Scarcer still was the sight of someone riding about town on the back of a horse.

Yet, that was exactly what folks living across the way from 17 Adelaide St. saw when teenaged Eleanor McQuarrie emerged from that house and mounted her steed during that decade. Later, when the family moved to 251 Kent St. — home to today’s Kent Inn — Eleanor spent many pleasant hours with her horse adjacent to Lindsay’s increasingly busy main thoroughfare.

The youngest of Dan and Ada McQuarrie’s five children, Eleanor was born north of Argyle in 1930, shortly before the family moved into Lindsay where her father had taken up a job as Victoria County’s Registrar of Deeds. Eleanor’s uncle, Duncan McQuarrie, who died when she was six, kept horses on the 400-acre family farm. Hardly a photo exists of young Eleanor where she isn’t cuddling or soothing an animal of some kind, whether it be dogs, kittens or horses.

Although she taught school for a few years, it was clear where Eleanor’s interests lay. In 1956, she became just the 33rd Canadian woman to graduate as a doctor of veterinary medicine.

Eleanor McQuarrie was among the cohort whom Weekend Magazine reporter Jock Carroll called “a small, select group of pioneers.” After all, it wasn’t easy for women to get into vet school 70 years ago. As historians Kevin Woodger and Elizabeth Stone point out in their essay “’One of the Boys’: Women at the Ontario Veterinary College in the Twentieth Century”, “Women — both those applying to and those who managed to gain entry into the veterinary program — were met with the masculine culture of veterinary medicine that viewed them as less than capable veterinary practitioners.”

Sexism prevailed at the O.V.C. during the 1950s and into the early 1960s, particularly among those who wished to specialize in the field of large animal medicine, which was deemed to be a masculine profession. It was no wonder, then, that Eleanor and her peers described the five-year program through the alliterative “Five Ds:” disillusioned, disappointed, discouraged, disgusted … and, ultimately, delighted, when they finally graduated. Asked by Weekend Magazine’s Carroll if she would do it all over again, Eleanor replied “I’d have to think about that, knowing what I do now.”

Upon graduating, Eleanor married a fellow student, Dr. John Hare, and they soon set sail for Kenya. While there, they lived in Narok, where they tested cattle for brucellosis and looked after a variety of domestic animals. A diary Eleanor kept reveals the day-to-day life of a Canadian veterinarian working abroad. From nursing a neighbour’s sick chickens back to health and administering a vaccine to an ill dog, to checking in on local horses to keeping monkeys away from their front porch, Eleanor was one busy lady. (“Had 25 minutes to do shopping,” she wrote one day.)

When Eleanor and John returned to Canada a few years later, they brought with them not only their eldest son, Clifford – who had been born about halfway through their African sojourn – but also a monkey named Gilbert and an African grey parrot named Sullivan. This bird became an entertaining fixture at the Hares’ new veterinary clinic in Simcoe, Ont., where Eleanor became known for never turning a sick animal away. Whether it was a piglet or puppy, Eleanor loved them all and occasionally invited her sons, nieces and nephews to join her around the operating table as she worked.

Eleanor died suddenly when she was only 39 years old, leaving behind three young sons. Had any of them decided to pursue careers in veterinary medicine, they may well have had an easier time in applying than their mother, as Woodger and Stone report that discriminatory attitudes lingered among some at the O.V.C. into the 1970s and 1980s. (Should Eleanor have a daughter, asked Jock Carroll, of Weekend Magazine, would she like her to become a vet? Perhaps recalling the hurdles her own contemporaries faced, Eleanor responded with “No, not my daughter.”)

Of course, times have changed considerably in the last seven decades, and today Canada’s veterinary colleges count far more female graduates annually than they do male graduates. Among that number is Dr. Sarah Hannah, née Downing, who completed her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at the O.V.C. in 2017. An LCVI alumnus like Eleanor McQuarrie, Dr. Hannah grew up on a Little Britain area farm and was instilled with a strong love of animals from a young age.

“Since graduation, I have had the pleasure of working alongside many strong, intelligent and compassionate women at the Fenelon Animal Clinic in Fenelon Falls,” Dr. Hannah says. “As a female veterinarian in a small town,” she reflects, “I believe I have an excellent opportunity to be a visible role model for the young women of our community, and I strive to encourage other women to achieve their dreams in the field of science.”

*Eleanor McQuarrie is the author’s great-aunt.

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