top of page

Important Women in Shawnigan's Early History

by Lori Treloar

Alice Ravenhill

Born in Snaresbrook, England, in 1859, Alice Ravenhill had a quintessentially strict Victorian childhood. Despite this-and the illness that would afflict her throughout her life- she dedicated herself to promoting health and welfare.

Alice became one of the first women to take a new diploma course offered by the National Health Society. It taught anatomy, hygiene, first aid, and dietetics, and included nine months of tending to infirmary patients.

So began an extensive career of lecturing, meticulous research, and publications about health, sanitation, and childcare. Alice contributed her expertise to schools, colleges, and other institutions across Europe and America. Her career was halted several times by various ailments, but her determination and compassion never faltered.

At age 51, Alice followed her brother, sister, and nephew to Shawnigan Lake to start a new life of homesteading. The wilds of Canada presented numerous trials, but the Ravenhills soon became active members of the community.

Alice continued to pursue home economics. She travelled around B.C., lecturing and writing papers for the province’s Women’s Institutes.

In 1926, the Women’s Institute asked Alice to research First Nations designs for rugs. As she explored the collections at the British Columbia Provincial Museum, she developed a fascination with Native arts and culture. She began lecturing on the subject, and wrote three books detailing her findings about the lives of B.C.’s Native people.

Alice received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of British Columbia in 1948. She advocated both home economics and awareness of Native culture until her death in 1954. (there is a Historica Canada Monument dedicated to Alice Ravenhill in the outdoor Gallery at the Museum)

Minna Gildea

Wilhelmina “Minna” Gildea was born in 1875 in the English village of West Lulworth. Her parents were well-off but humble, and taught their children the importance of responsibility and service. These values were a driving force in Minna’s future career.

Minna took teacher’s training at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in western England. She excelled in her studies and took her first teaching position in Nova Scotia. After teaching at several other schools in Canada and England, she decided to start her own.

With encouragement from Shawnigan School headmaster C.W. Lonsdale and Forest Inn proprietress Mrs. Mason-Hurley, she bought the former Strathcona Lodge and opened it as a girls’ boarding school in 1927.

At a time when women were expected to be docile and demure, Minna challenged social norms with her strong and eccentric personality. Accounts from the “Old Girls” of Strathcona remark on her self-confidence (“She didn’t walk so much as she strode”); her brilliant mind; and her humour. She resolved to create a family environment in the school, and often invited students to her study to discuss personal matters. She was also an incredible orator, and read books and newspapers aloud on Sunday evenings.

Above all, Minna emphasized the importance of thinking for oneself, forging one’s own identity, and contributing to society. She taught her girls that, as privileged and educated members of the future generation, they had a duty to use their strengths for the greater good.

Minna remained headmistress of Strathcona until her passing in 1950.

Frances Kelsey

Frances Oldham Kelsey was born in Cobble Hill in 1914. She was educated at schools in Shawnigan Lake, Victoria, and England. After graduating, she studied biology and zoology at Victoria College, then biochemistry and pharmacology at McGill university. She graduated with her Bachelor of Science in 1934.

She worked as a research assistant in McGill’s pharmacology department until going to the University of Chicago in 1936. There, she obtained her Ph.D. and M.D. She also met her future husband, university instructor F. Ellis Kelsey.

In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hired her as a medical officer- someone who reviewed applications from drug manufacturers to ensure their products were safe.

One of her earliest applications was for thalidomide, a drug for morning sickness and insomnia. Despite the drug already being on European markets, Frances found deficiencies in the application, which conflicted with the glowing claims made by Merrell, the company.

Frances requested better clinical studies, but it became clear that Merrell had done insufficient testing to prove thalidomide’s safety. Concerns mounted when the FDA learned it had caused widespread cases of peripheral neuritis, a neurological condition. Merrell also hadn’t studied the effects of thalidomide’s use throughout pregnancy. This had disastrous consequences in the form of birth defects across the world.

Throughout the ordeal, Merrell pressured Frances to approve the drug, which she continually refused to do.

The issue was unresolved until 1962, when the application was fully withdrawn. By then, ten thousand children in 46 countries had suffered birth defects. Thanks to Frances’ persistence, the drug was not approved in the U.S., saving thousands more from the same fate.

Following this incident, stricter drug regulations were introduced to America in 1962 and 63. 1962 was also the year Frances received the U.S. President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service.

Frances later became chief of the FDA’s Investigational Drugs Branch. She was inducted into both the Women’s Hall of Fame and the Order of Canada before her passing in 2015.

56 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page