In September 2017, the University of Alberta’s School of Dentistry celebrated its 100-year anniversary. To mark this significant milestone the school engaged award-winning Alberta journalist and author Taylor Lambert to document its history. His book Roots: Extracted Tales from a century of Dentistry at the University of Alberta is now available.
One of the many stories Lambert uncovered is that of Yachiyo Yoneyama, the first woman to graduate from the U of A School of Dentistry.
Here is an excerpt from Lambert’s book Roots, pointing out Yoneyama in the 1943 dentistry graduating class picture:
...the thick, long black curls of Yachiyo Yoneyama, tied back yet seemingly uncontainable, distinguish her among the close-cropped haircuts of the white men who fill the rest of the frame. When Yoneyama began studying dentistry at the U of A, she was not the first woman―Fern Rideout had studied for a few years around 1920 before dropping out―but she would be the first woman to graduate. Born in Vancouver to Japanese parents who had emigrated to Canada shortly after marrying in 1914, Yoneyama was not only the sole woman in her graduating class, but also the only visible minority. She and [Dr. Harry E.] Bulyea [first director of the School] became friends, bonding over their mutual artistic passions: he painted a flattering portrait of her, and she drew a pencil sketch of him. Yoneyama’s older sister, Misao, was also at the U of A studying medicine, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Less than three months later, the forced removal and internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Canadians began. Their parents, their younger sister, Mitsue, and their younger brother, Yutaka, were forced to leave their farm. Yutaka Yoneyama recalls that time:
By May, the licence plates from our car were removed; cameras, explosives and firearms were confiscated; and we were placed under curfew. Mom and Dad, especially Dad, were devastated by the evacuation order since their income would be minimal. Misao and Yachiyo still had another year to complete before graduation. Somehow Dad and Mom managed….
[At a community meeting,] discussions centred around what had to be done in the event of an attack… the lights were turned down, and I was escorted out of the meeting. I was shocked and devastated. I suddenly realized that I was considered one of ‘them’ and not one of ‘us.’
The family, already separated from two daughters, was further split up: Mitsue was sent to a relocation camp near Hope, while Yutaka and his parents ended up working on a farm south of Edmonton, exploited by the landowners as prisoners of war. After two months of labour, they were paid a mere thirty dollars.
Yachiyo left no letters or journals recording her school experiences, but it is fair to say that this was a difficult time to be Japanese-Canadian, and one of the darkest moments in Canada’s history. She graduated from the dentistry program in 1943, then moved to Lamont, Alberta, to serve as the dental health officer in a rural clinic before she took a Guggenheim Fellowship in New York, and eventually settled in Toronto where she practiced pediatric dentistry for decades. She died in 2013 at ninety-six, after a long career and rich family life. Her achievement and distinction would often be held up in later, more progressive decades as an important milestone in the history of the dental school. But the juxtaposing context of the concurrent injustice to her family has always been omitted, and thus not widely known. The year after she graduated, her brother, Yutaka―like his sisters, a Canadian-born citizen―applied to the University of Alberta to study electrical engineering. In a letter dated September 26, 1944, he received the reply:
We have your application for admission to first year B. Sc. in Electrical Engineering.
I regret to advise you that we cannot accept your registration at this time. Students of Japanese extraction who are being admitted are those who were residents of Alberta prior to December 7, 1941.
December 7, 1941, of course, was the day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. The broadly-supported racist policies of governments of the day had found their way into the University of Alberta, which had begun refusing students based solely on their ethnic background.
If she broke the gender barrier for the U of A dentistry, meanwhile, no rush of women followed in Yachiyo Yoneyama’s wake. The next female DDS graduate, Pauline Haven, wouldn’t arrive until nearly a decade later, in 1951. After Haven, Beatris Kalais graduated in 1954. Then, in 1955, another milestone: Irena Glasgow and Ophelia Sarchuk both received dentistry degrees, marking the first class with two women. Again, progress was halting, and Dentistry wouldn’t graduate another woman for four years. The students remained overwhelmingly white men, any divergence more an exception than a signifier of any great progressive shift. Today, classes in the dental program are models of diversity and gender parity, though discrimination and prejudice still plague campus and society. The fight for equality continues, and we must guard against regression. To go that, we must recognize the hard-fought gains that have been won, and resolve to defend them, even as we seek new victories and continued progress.
Taylor Lambert is an Alberta journalist and author. His other books include Darwin’s Moving, Rising: Stories of the 2013 Alberta Flood, and Leaving Moose Jaw.
Eleanor Silver Dowding
University of Alberta’s Eleanor Silver Dowding was one of the first women to teach science at a Canadian university. She established the first diagnostic medical mycology laboratory in the British Commonwealth. The laboratory, located in Edmonton, provided a diagnostic service focused on human fungal diseases for the Province of Alberta. Throughout her career, Dowding—called Silver by her friends—amassed a vast collection of medically important fungi that laid the foundation for the internationally significant University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium (UAMH).
Dowding wrote in her later years that “to attend University seemed an impossible dream…[In my day,] there were few openings for women except in office work and nursing.”
Reflecting on Dowding’s pioneering career in Mycologia her former colleagues Helene Schalkwijk-Barendsen, Randy Currah and Lynne Sigler wrote, “During a time when women in science were uncommon, Silver Keeping [nee Dowding] had gained great respect for her dedication to her work, her broad knowledge of her subjects and her innovative ideas.”
She obtained a series of scholarships to enter the U of A and, in 1924, following her undergraduate degree, Dowding completed a master of science in botany on Edmonton area flora. Her research resulted in a number of significant papers that continue to provide background for work on plant ecology in Alberta.
Her former colleagues explain that Dowding then went on to study for a year at Birkbeck College with Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, an expert in fungal genetics, and in 1931 she completed a PhD at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Dowding’s PhD supervisor was one of Canada’s most well-known mycologists, Arthur Henry Reginald Buller. Dowding worked as a research assistant in Buller’s lab studying the sexuality of rust fungi until 1933 when she moved to Ottawa briefly to work with I. L. Connors of the National Mycological Herbarium. She and Connors described Gelasinospora, a new genus of coprophilous fungi associated with animal droppings.
In 1933, Dowding returned to Edmonton to establish a diagnostic service for human fungal disease, which was set up through the Provincial Laboratory of Public Health in space provided by U of A dean of medicine Allan Rankin. Between 1933 and 1954, she ran the service, taught as a sessional lecturer in mycology, and supervised graduate student, J.W. (Bill) Carmichael who succeeded her in 1954. Dowding then continued her work through an honorary research associate position in the department of botany and later in genetics until her retirement in 1971.
Under the rules of employment at the time, she did not receive a salary for her work at the university as she was married to a faculty member―professor of mathematics Ernest Sydney Keeping.
Laying the foundation for an internationally significant fungi collection
Throughout her career, Dowding made a number of contributions to medical mycology. Her work on dermatophytes—a common name for types of fungi that cause skin infections—with U of A’s dermatologist Harold Orr, shaped how these fungi are understood and classified, and provided early insights into the species involved in infection in Alberta.
Her later work, which was focused on systemic fungi that cause deep infections in otherwise healthy hosts, revealed an excellent understanding of the process of dimorphism, which refers to having two fungal shapes. Her observations on the relationships between an obscure fungus found in Alberta rodents and dimorphic human pathogens has been borne out by recent taxonomic studies.
Over the course of her research, she amassed a substantial collection of medically important fungi, which formed the nucleus of what was to later become the University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium under the leadership of Carmichael and Lynn Sigler.
University of Alberta Microfungus Collection and Herbarium (UAMH)
The UAMH, which had its origins in Dowding’s work, continues to be internationally significant. It is the only North American collection with a focus on medically important fungi.
In 1954, when Dowding stopped working at the Provincial Laboratory, her former student Bill Carmichael took over the management of the diagnostic service. He expanded the fungi collection started by Dowding, which he named the Mold Herbarium and Culture Collection, and established more formal curatorial methods.
Lynne Sigler began working with Carmichael as the curator in 1969, taking over the collection when Carmichael retired in 1983. She remembers the period between 1983 and 1985 as “a time of great uncertainty due to the need to obtain operational support.” In 1986, she negotiated the relocation of the UAMH from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to the Devonian Botanic Garden, part of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences.
Prior to this transfer, scientists and physicians from around the world wrote to the U of A’s school of medicine to express their concern about the collection’s future, and to inform them of its significance to medical and agricultural research. These letters are held at the University of Alberta Archives.
One letter written by Ira F. Salkin, research scientist, State of New York, Department of Health, read:
Rather than the personal research collection of a faculty member, the herbarium represents an internationally renowned resource in fungal taxonomy. The scope of the collection, the accessibility of its components to scientists, the detailed data accumulated for each of the organisms, the expertise of the staff, make the collection invaluable to the scientific community. I have, on several occasions, utilized the excellent facilities in my studies of medically important fungi. In two of my projects, I found that the information required was only available through the mold herbarium.
The letter concluded, “much of the mycologic community looks upon the University of Alberta Mold Herbarium as one of the elements which have brought honor and distinction to the University.”
With Carmichael and Sigler at the helm, the collection was used in a number of clinical developments. For instance, as an article in History Trails explained, the UAMH played a small part of the history of anti-rejection drug cyclosporine, which is used in transplantation. After the effectiveness of cyclosporine was demonstrated, Sigler provided a strain of the fungus from the UAMH collection that yielded greater amounts of the drug than the original strain.
In 2015, the U of A transferred the collection to the University of Toronto where it was renamed the UAMH Centre for Global Microfungal Biodiversity. The collection, which includes many fungal isolates studied by Dowding, is, according to the UAMH website, “the largest and most important research archive of public health-relevant microfungi in the western hemisphere and one of only two top-level biobanks of these organisms in the world.”
For more information on Eleanor Silver Dowding see “E. Silver Dowding (Mrs E.S. Keeping),” by former colleagues HME Schalkwijk-Barendsen, R.S. Currah, and L. Sigler, and two articles in History Trails, “Preserving Genetic Diversity in the Kingdom of Fungi,” and “Gone but Far From Forgotten.” See also her article detailing a few of the contributions she and Orr made to mycology, and Ralph H. Estey’s A History of Mycology in Canada. Additionally, in 2000, Vivian Zenari wrote an article for folio which focused on Lynne Sigler’s work