When she was a child, Dr. Arrabelle MacKenzie McCallum’s remarkable career was unimaginable.

She was an 11-year-old child in Cape Breton in 1894 when she experienced an accident that could’ve ruined, or even ended, her life. She stepped on a rusty nail, causing a badly infected wound. In those days before antibiotics, an infection could be a death sentence.

To save her, a doctor amputated the leg. She survived the infection but faced an uncertain future. It was an age when women with mobility issues were all but housebound, having little independence or opportunity.

But she carried on. Her family jury-rigged a prosthetic leg, using the leg of a chair, and she resumed her studies in a tiny one-room school, going on to Sydney Academy for Grade 11. Next she moved to the Prairies and taught school.

But her ambition was to study dentistry at Dalhousie University, so a year later she returned home and enrolled. During her studies, she earned a reputation amongst her classmates for being dauntless and outspoken, becoming student president in 1918. In 1919, she graduated—the first Nova Scotian woman to earn a degree in dentistry.

Barbara Sybbald (left) and Catherine Blake visit the building that housed the clinic where their grandparents Arrabelle MacKenzie McCallum and Archie McCallum worked side by side. Photo: Facebook

In 1920, in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, the relief commission opened a hospital in an old building at the Stadacona naval base. Mackenzie was soon in charge of clinic there for pre-schoolers, the first place in Canada offering young children up-to-date dental care. It was the first place In Canada where they received up-to date dental care.

Within three years, she was handling 8,000 cases per year. While working in the clinic, she met Archie McCallum, a naval surgeon who was visiting the port. They fell in love and married in 1924, her last name becoming MacKenzie McCallum.

The newlyweds moved to Toronto, established a clinic in their home, treating patients until the Second World War broke out and her husband returned to service. In 1944, McKenzie McCallum became a dentist for six low-income high schools in that city, supplying her own instruments and sterilizer as she cared for high-school students.

She retired in 1952, leaving a remarkable legacy in the era long before government-funded health care: many of her students, who had never had dental care before, received her services for free.

Today her memory lives on in the form of Dalhousie’s Arrabelle MacKenzie McCallum Bursary, awarded to students with “financial need” from Victoria County.

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