Mary Percywas born on December 27, 1904 in Dudley, England (Dudley is just outside Birmingham). In 1927 she graduated from the University of Birmingham with a Bachelor of Surgery and Bachelor of Medicine. She then worked for a time at the Birmingham General Hospital. Eager for adventure, Mary intended to go and practice medicine in India. However, those placements came up only every two years. While waiting for the India placement, she read an advertisement in the British Medical Journal for women doctors to practice in Alberta. Mary applied, and left for Canada, intending to spend only one year there. She was sent by the Alberta Government District Medical Officer to the Battle River district, in the north part of the Peace River country in Northern Alberta.
On March 10, 1931, she married widower Frank Jackson, an English-born fur-trader and farmer with three sons, Louis Albert, Arthur Carl and Franck. Frank’s first wife, Louise Barr, had died shortly after giving birth to their third son. Frank and Mary had two children, Lesley Anne and John Robert. She left Battle River when she married, and gave up her contract with the government. She moved further north, to Keg River, where Frank had been living for many years. At Keg River, the nearest doctors were 125 miles south, at Peace River, and 125 miles north-east, at Fort Vermillion, both of which were inaccessible most of the time.
As a married woman, Mary could no longer practice medicine for the Alberta Government. Nevertheless, she did continue to practice, in an office and waiting room Frank built for her in the basement of their house. She practiced extensively among the Metis population in the area, which she found extremely satisfying. Mary retired in 1974, when Frank became ill. He died in 1979.
Mary was a women with many accolades: in 1975, she was named “Woman of the Year” by the Voice of Native Women, in 1976 she was presented an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Alberta, in 1983 she was named to the Alberta Order of Excellence and in 1989 she was appointed to the Order of Canada.
“A heroic example of the pioneer spirit and commitment of northern doctors, she devoted her life to ministering to the Indians, Metis and immigrants of northwestern Alberta. Undaunted by the expansiveness of her territory, the receipt of payment in barter, the primitive transportation or the inadequate medical facilities and equipment, she has served Canadians with great dedication, skill and sacrifice.” Order of Canada
Dr. Jackson resided in Keg River until moving to Manning in about 1996. She died May 6, 2000.
“My last letter to you only left yesterday, and here I am writing again. I hope you won’t get tired of my effusions. Really, if I wrote all I wanted, you’d e getting about 20 pages a day! I hope you’ll keep my letters. I should rather like to have them myself in my old age. They take the place of a diary! I meant to keep a diary, but soon discovered that life was too short to write down all interesting things that happened. I am trying to tell you about things as soon as they happen, because I’m already getting so used to things that I can hardly realize how different they will all seem to you.
Mary Percy Jackson, August 4th, 1929
MPJ was a regular letter-writer to friends and family. She wrote hundred of letters to those back in England, most frequently in 1929, a little less often in 1930, and then sporadically in 1931 just before her marriage to Frank Jackson in March. We were of course unable to use all of Dr. Jackson’s letters in Letters from Battle River (there were just too many!). Some liberties were taken in chronology, and some letters were abbreviated. To read the letters in their entirety, visit the Provincial Archives of Alberta, or view them online at the Archives Society of Alberta’s In Word database. We have kept the letters’ original language – some of which today may be offensive, but was nevertheless common at the time.
The letters were written to a number of individuals and were circulated among friends in England. They were collected and published in 1933 as On the Last Frontier: Pioneering in the Peace River Block: Letters of Mary Percy Jackson. This book is available in the Provincial Archives of Alberta’s Reference Library. The letters were edited by Janice Dicken and published as Suitable for the Wilds in 1996.
For more information on Mary Percy Jackson check out:
The Homemade Brass Plate (her 1988 memoir)
Wanted, Doctor on Horseback, a 1996 National Film Board documentary
Suitable for the Wilds: Letters from Northern Alberta, 1929-31, MPJ’s letters as edited by Janice Dicken
Mary Percy Jackson’s records at the Provincial Archives of Alberta