One of the most remarkable early residents of Red Deer was Dr. Henrietta Patterson Denovan. She was the first registered woman physician to practice in the Province of Alberta.
Eliza Henrietta Richardson Patterson was born in Ontario on November 6, 1862. She completed her education, with honours, at Victoria University in Toronto. She then became a graduate in medicine from the University of Trinity College (now part of the University of Toronto) at a time when very few women became physicians.
In 1892, she married Howard Judson Denovan, who had also graduated in medicine from the University of Trinity College and who was considerably younger than she was. In December 1892, the couple moved to Calgary to practice medicine together. Unfortunately, things did not work out too well for them in that community. They decided to head north to see what the prospects in the towns along the Calgary-Edmonton Railway might be. They briefly considered settling in Red Deer, but decided that Lacombe, as the larger town, would be a better place for two young doctors to start a practice.
Unfortunately, Lacombe did not work out as well as they expected. In the fall of 1893, they moved back to Calgary, where their first daughter, Jean, was born. In January 1895, the Denovans moved to the coal-mining town of Canmore where Howard also secured the position of coroner. While in Canmore, their first son, Howard John McNab Denovan, better known as Jack, was born.
In 1896, the Denovans returned to Red Deer. They purchased the medical practice of Dr. Jacob Hicks. They also bought a large house on McLeod (54th) Street, close to St. Luke’s Anglican Church.
Dr. Howard Denovan quickly acquired a reputation as one of the most colourful physicians in Central Alberta. Whenever he was called as a professional witness in court, he enjoyed quoting obscure technical terms in order to baffle the judge, lawyers and jury. Each morning, he would present himself at the Gaetz Cornett Drugstore, proclaiming “The Good Book says a little wine for the stomach’s sake”. He would then take some whiskey from the drugstore’s supply. It was a habit that would later cause him a lot of difficulty.
Meanwhile, the Denovans had two more children, Joshua (Joe), who was born in 1898 and Nora, who was born in 1902.
As the Denovan’s domestic life became more and more unsettled, they decided to sell their medical practice to a new doctor from Ontario, Dr. Richard Parsons. They then moved to Strathcona on the south side of Edmonton. However, within weeks, Howard was back in Lacombe to start another practice and shortly after that, he moved to the village of Content, near the current town of Delburne.
In the spring of 1904, the Denovans were both back in Red Deer. They had returned because the new Red Deer Memorial Hospital was opening. On April 25th, Dr. Henrietta (known as Etta) Denovan, assisted by her husband, performed the first surgical operation in the hospital.
In the spring of 1906, the Doctors Denovan attended the first provincial meeting of the Alberta Medical Association. In December 1906, Dr. Etta Denovan became the first woman to be registered with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, her previous registration being with the College of the North West Territories, from which the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were formed.
In the spring of 1907, the Denovans moved to Edmonton, where their marriage finally broke up. Howard moved first to Castor and then to Stettler, where he died in December 1919.
Etta moved to Victoria with her children where she continued to practice medicine. She later moved to San Francisco to live near her sons and daughter Nora. She passed away in the United States on July 3, 1947.
Denovan Crescent in Red Deer is named in honour of the Doctors Denovan.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian. His column appears on Wednesdays.