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A profile of a pioneer

Bertha Archibald, the first woman to receive a pharmaceutical diploma from Dalhousie, displayed heroics during tragedy

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Bertha Archibald, who was born in Bedford in 1889, never planned to be a pharmacist because in those days men dominated the profession. Instead, she planned to become a nurse.

However, she had to postpone her plans when her mother and youngest sister became very ill. She cared for them for two years.

It was some time in the early 1900s, her brother arranged for her to attend a nursing school in Calgary. But something happened there that changed her mind. “I was caring for patients during a serious epidemic when I was sent to the hospital’s pharmacy,” she recalled to writer Basil Deakin for a profile he wrote on her in the Chronicle Herald in 1977. “I’d never seen one before and I was thrilled. All those bottles on the shelves. I couldn’t read a word of what was on them, all in Latin and gold letters.”

A woman pharmacist was fascinated by her response and suggested Archibald study pharmacy because there were opportunities for hospital pharmacists.

Of course, she wasn’t aware that there weren’t any women pharmacists in Nova Scotia.

That suggestion dramatically changed Bertha’s destiny because she was soon on her way home, convinced she would become a pharmacist.

In Nova Scotia, aware it would be a real challenge to achieve her dream, she first took a course at a technical college and then worked for three years at a pharmacy in Bedford.

By 1917, she was the first woman ever to be awarded a pharmaceutical diploma at Dalhousie University.
In the Chronicle Herald article, Deakin described her first week as an assistant pharmacist at the Victoria General Hospital as “a professional baptism of fire”.

It was on the morning of December 6, 1917 when two ships in the Halifax Harbour collided, causing a terrible tragedy.

Archibald had been standing at the pharmacy counter when all of its windows came crashing in. Fortunately, she had ducked when the explosion occurred and when she stood up she realized she had almost been killed by a long piece of sharp glass.

The next few days were a nightmare. “I never worked so hard in my life,” she recalled in that article. This terrifying experience had included assisting and caring for a doctor who had one of his ears blown off.
Fortunately, Archibald’s, 29-year career at the Victoria General pharmacy was never again so traumatic, but it did lead to her playing a major role in a most signifcant surgical breakthrough.

It was an outstanding achievement when she was able to formulate a drug to be used for the first spinal injection ever given during an operation at the hospital in 1921. It was required for a man who was about to have one of his legs amputated. His doctor had been very concerned that, due to his serious heart condition, he would never survive the stress of a general anesthetic. According to an article in the August 1945 edition of the Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal, the drug proved to be highly effective for the surgery, and was eventually used by firms for general use.

Archibald also loved Bedford where she had lived during her career at the Victoria General. Seems she had commuted daily from the community to Halifax by train.

On one occasion, when the train was delayed by snowfall, she decided to walk the 16 miles to work but confided she caught a street car when she got to Halifax.

Bertha Archibald never married and focused her attention on other things like becoming a devout Christian, who attended the Bedford Baptist Church where her parents had been founding members in 1899. She also served as one of its Sunday school teachers.

But she had other talents, which included having her articles published in many magazines. She was also a poet with a lovely voice and was once described in a newspaper headline as being “A Poet With The Gift Of
Song.”

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