British articles about Alice Ravenhill always comment on what a pity it was that she chose to leave a promising life in England to live with her sister in the untamed and culturally starved wilds of Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia. Even she admitted great trepidation at the thought of coming to Canada and at the beginning and committed herself to not more than four or five years at the most.
Alice Ravenhill was the middle child of seven in an affluent family in England. She had nurses and governesses to watch over her, to make sure she was brought up in a manner befitting the daughter of a famous naval architect and marine engineer. The only anomaly in this Victorian upbringing was that she was allowed to attend school, an unusual activity for girls of her social standing. She excelled at school and upon her graduation at 17; she hoped to continue her studies at the National Training School of Cookery in England. Her father forbade it, wishing her instead to find the right young man and marry. Ravenhill was not so easily put off and bided her time.
Ravenhill educated herself in literature, language, history, geology, biology and physiology. She transcribed T.H. Huxley’s Lessons in Elementary Physiology, as well as some of Sir John Lubbock’s books on natural history, into Braille. Her bedroom was a testament to the scientist that she was to become. Besides her lessons and books, she kept worms and cows’ eyes that she used to study and dissect. Seeing the dedication of his daughter to science Ravenhill’s father eventually agreed to let her engage in further studies. She went to school at the National Health Society and was awarded a diploma in National Health in 1892. Ravenhill immediately set out on a path of lecturing and teaching about personal health, hygiene, nutrition and child care. She ignored social boundaries. She gave classes in universities in London and Cambridge and talked to factory girls’ clubs and working men’s clubs. She especially believed that men should be responsible about their paternal duties and that boys should attend continuation courses to learn about parenting.
Ravenhill’s message was simple: blind instinct in terms of public health, home economics and hygiene must give way to trained intelligence. She worked to promote women’s health and better conditions for mothers and babies. Ravenhill maintained that all work connected with the home was worthy of intellectual study. Nutrition, hygiene, domestic affairs, physiology and psychology and the care of children were all important for the general welfare of the family and the community. In a book she co-edited with Catherine Schiff in 1910, Ravenhill emphasized that domestic arts were not a collection of social conventions learned by imitation or exercised by instinct. She set about developing courses for teacher-training colleges on physical development in childhood and thousands of teachers went through her programs. For her extraordinary work in England, she became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Sanitary Institute of London.
Ravenhill never married. As a young woman she was engaged to be married but her father terminated the relationship just three days before the wedding, asserting that her fiancé would never make anything of himself and was therefore not worthy of her. Her father turned out to be wrong; her fiancé went on to become an eminent surgeon. In 1910, Ravenhill moved to British Columbia with her sister to help establish a new family home. Their brother and his son had preceded them to homestead at Shawnigan Lake. In preparation for her arrival in Vancouver, Ravenhill took a course at Studley Horticultural College to learn, among other things, dairying and carpentry.
England’s loss was British Columbia’s gain. Ravenhill was immediately critical of the education system which she felt ignored the intellectual ambitions and economic needs of the many women who would remain unmarried. Not every woman, she said, would marry and to support those women, education should be aimed at equipping them with the tools they would need to be capable, practical and intelligent citizens. A year after her arrival she went to work for the BC Department of Agriculture, helping with the newly established Women’s Institutes. The BC Women’s Institutes were one of the pioneering organizations promoting women’s social and educational advancement and Ravenhill was a vital force in their development.
Ravenhill lobbied for the inclusion of home economics as a discipline worthy of study in university. In 1915, she was appointed to an advisory board and headed a committee for the purpose of establishing a Chair of Home Economics at the University of British Columbia. Three years later, the Department of Education recognized the need for a system of industrial training to maintain economic prosperity; the teaching of domestic science became an important component of that training.
Ravenhill travelled all over BC for the Department of Agriculture to give talks on home management to the various Women’s Institutes. Seeing a need for written material on the topics she was lecturing on, she induced the department to publish a Women’s Institute quarterly journal which she edited. She also prepared a series of bulletins for the Women’s Institutes on food preserving, child care, and the place and purpose of family life. Ravenhill was becoming known as one of the leading experts in home hygiene and her expertise was sought by many organizations. She gave courses and lectures at the Normal School in Vancouver and to teachers in
Nanaimo. She taught at Oregon State College at Corvallis and lectured at Salt Lake City, the University of Nebraska, Texas State University and Kansas State University.
In 1917, Ravenhill accepted the position of Director of Home Economics at Utah State University. Her duties as director and teacher were more taxing than she had imagined. Each of her five weekly courses was attended by several hundred students which left her with a massive amount of marking. She felt there was a need to have students engage in practicums so she established a “practice house” for students taking the Home Economics program. In 1918, the Spanish influenza hit the college; Ravenhill was presenting a lecture at Colorado State University when she collapsed. She spent some time in a sanitarium in Colorado but, anxious to get back to Utah and resume her duties, she left Colorado in a severely weakened state and quickly fell ill once again. Her doctors advised her to resign her position and rest.
Ravenhill heeded their advice and left Utah in 1919 to go back to British Columbia. Her health had been seriously compromised by the flu and she was ill for the next four years, requiring the assistance of a nurse for three of those years. Anxious to justify her continued existence, Ravenhill donated several hundred of her books to the library of the newly established University of British Columbia. She felt a deep connection with the university for she had spent time on several committees, working to develop plans for it.
As her health improved, she started to lend her support and expertise to a number of organizations. Ravenhill became a member and sometimes served on the executive of the Sociological Society, the National League for Physical Education and Improvement, the Penal Reform League, the Infant Mortality Conference, the National Froebel Union for the training of nurses, the Child-Study Society and the Queen Alexandra Solarium committee. She often served as a substitute for the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, taking over the services during his occasional absences, and was asked by friends to lead a study group on the historical background of the Bible, which she enjoyed immensely.
In addition to the field of home economics, the love of Ravenhill’s life was the art of British Columbia’s Native people. She first became interested in Native arts when she was asked by the Women’s Institute to adapt Native designs to the making of hooked rugs. From there she expanded her knowledge to include Native methods of tree felling, house building, food preparation, drama, and oratory. By the 1930s Ravenhill had become a local authority on the arts and crafts of British Columbia’s aboriginal people. She wrote a book for the provincial museum which included photographs she had taken of the arts and artifacts of BC Natives. She aroused a great deal of interest in Native arts and formed the Society for the Furtherance of BC Indian Arts and Welfare.
Still vital at the age of 87 Ravenhill campaigned for educational equality for Native people in 1946 and was most distressed that Canada denied midwifery training to Native girls. Recognized for her pioneering efforts to make known and preserve Native cultures, she received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of British Columbia in 1948. Dr. Norman MacKenzie, the president of the university, said, “A distinguished scientist who, after devoting many years of energy to the advance of social welfare in Great Britain, has won the lasting gratitude of this Province by her pioneering efforts to make known and preserve its native cultures.”3
Alice Ravenhill retired to a home for aged women in Victoria in 1948. She died in 1954 at the age of 95. She was a brilliant woman, courageous and scholarly, who gave much to her adopted country.
By the 1850s, Canadian women had begun to demand access to medical schools. It would not be until 1883, however, that the Women’s Medical College would open its doors to students. For women in British Columbia this meant travelling to Queen’s University or the University of Toronto to obtain their training. Up until 1949, when the first BC faculty of medicine opened at the University of British Columbia, all physicians practising here came from outside the province. These women brought with them expertise on congenital heart disease, anesthesia, immunology, nutrition, pharmacology and the treatment of cancer. Many of them would become leaders in their areas. In 1951, Dr. Ethlyn Trapp introduced new treatments for cancer to British Columbia, changing the course of cancer therapy in the province. She pioneered the way for women like Dr. Julia Levy who, in 1993, developed an innovative cancer treatment that combines drug therapy with laser light to destroy abnormal cells while leaving healthy tissues unharmed and intact.
Black, Charlotte. Originals, 1942-1952. Director, School of Home Economics, UBC, Letters from Dr. Alice Ravenhill. Government Documents, BC Archives.
Daniels, Christine and Robert Bayliss. “Alice Ravenhill Home Economist 1859-1954.” Westminster Studies in Education 8, 1985:21-36.
Ravenhill, Alice. A Corner Stone of Canadian Culture: An Outline of the Arts and Crafts of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia. Victoria: Kings Printer, 1944.
—. Alice Ravenhill: The Memoirs of an Educational Pioneer. Toronto: J.M. Dent and Son, 1951.
—. B.C. Indian Arts and Welfare Society. Microfiche files, BC Archives, 1940-1954.
—. Folklore of the Far West, With Some Clues to Characteristics and Customs. Victoria: Morriss Printing, 1953.
—. Society for the Furtherance of B.C. Indian Arts and Crafts, Originals. Government Documents, BC Archives.