The Doctor Rode Side-Saddle: The Remarkable Story of Elizabeth Matheson, Frontier Doctor and Medicine Woman


166 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 0-88977-160-X
DDC 610'.92




Reviewed by Marie T. Gillis

Marie T. Gillis is a member of the Angus L. Macdonald Library staff at
St. Francis Xavier University.


First published in 1974, this reissue of The Doctor Rode Side-Saddle is
meant to be a biographical study of Elizabeth Matheson, a pioneer of
both Western Canada and the medical profession. Matheson’s daughter,
Ruth Buck, has taken on the worthwhile yet somewhat daunting task of
illustrating her mother’s life, of providing context and explanation
for her mother’s choices. Unfortunately, at least in this examination,
Elizabeth Matheson’s personality often becomes subsumed in that of her
husband, John “Grace” Matheson, the driving force behind much of
Elizabeth’s adult life.

There is no question that Elizabeth was both courageous and
resourceful. With her husband, she was posted to an Anglican mission at
the Onion Lake Reserve in Saskatchewan, in 1892. Prior to that time, she
had already attended medical school for a year and spent two years as a
missionary in India. This was no shrinking violet. She capably managed
their growing household (expanded by both their nine children and those
people they took in as helpers, who often grew to be “family”) and
the mission, and found great satisfaction in both. She had willingly
given up her medical career for her husband, and when he demanded that
she go back to her studies in order to provide medical service for the
mission, she felt somewhat betrayed. Still she went, and received her
degree—though not a licence to practise. That took a five-year fight
with the North-West Territories College of Physicians and Surgeons, and
the earning of a second medical degree.

The Doctor Rode Side-Saddle is fascinating and frustrating: fascinating
because of the glimpse it gives us into Elizabeth’s life, frustrating
because that glimpse makes us want more. The story essentially ends with
the death of John Matheson in 1916. Elizabeth lived until 1958, but we
are given only the faintest sketch of those 42 years. There are
tantalizing hints of sources of potential delight: letters that she
wrote to her children as they dispersed to lead their own lives; a
journal she kept in later life. Ruth Buck has provided an etching of her
mother that makes us long for a life-size portrait.


Buck, Ruth Matheson., “The Doctor Rode Side-Saddle: The Remarkable Story of Elizabeth Matheson, Frontier Doctor and Medicine Woman,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,