Updated: Jul 17, 2021
Sigridur Augusta Christianson Houston, M.D.
First Icelandic-Canadian woman doctor
Fourth Icelandic woman doctor in the World
by Christal Oliver Speer
How did a girl born of Icelandic immigrants become a famous and beloved pioneer woman doctor of Saskatchewan, Canada? The story begins with her parents.
Geir Kristjansson, a journeyman carpenter from the fishing village of Hafnarfjörður, was working the summer of 1888 in the hayfields of Skagafjörður in northern Iceland. Another worker, Sesselja Rakel Sveinsdóttir, caught his eye, but the summer ended without any commitments made. When the following summer came, Geir returned to Skagafjörður in eager anticipation, expecting to see Sesselja. To his great disappointment, she wasn’t there and he learned she had emigrated to “Amerika” that spring. When haying season ended that fall, Geir boarded a ship traveling to Canada.
The family story reports that when Geir arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he started asking people in the Icelandic community, “Does anyone know where Sesselja Sveinsdóttir is?” Yes, someone did know. She was working as a maid in the hotel at Pembina, North Dakota. Undeterred, Geir traveled at once to Pembina and sought out Sesselja. They married in North Dakota in 1890.
The couple moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where their four children were born: Bill, Sigga, Dora, and Bertha. Geir worked as a carpenter and Sesselja took in boarders for extra income. In 1905, the family joined many other Icelanders in the quest for free land in the Wynyard-Mozart area of Saskatchewan, Canada, and became homesteaders.
Her brother and sisters were delighted to live on a farm, but Sigga was devasted. Back in Grand Forks, she had been dreaming of going to the university someday and knew she would have to complete high school first. At their new home, Sigga attended the local school, but it ended with the eighth grade. She was an exceptionally bright student and wanted to attend high school. What could she do? The answer came from their neighbor Baldur Olson. His mother said Sigga could live at her boarding house in Winnipeg and cook breakfast for the male boarders. Sigga got up each day at 5 am to cook breakfast before heading off to high school.
After graduation, Sigga moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to attend normal school, graduating in 1914. (In those days normal schools were established to train teachers in the “norms” or standards, of education.) But Sigga’s dream for her future was to become a medical doctor. To achieve that goal, she taught for four years and saved enough money to attend the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. This was an exciting time for women in Canada who were of European descent. In 1918, women of European descent were granted the right to vote in most parts of Canada. *However, Asian women (and men) did not receive the right to vote until 1948, Inuit women (and men) were not allowed to vote until 1950, and Indigenous women (and men) were not allowed to vote until 1960.
After one year of pre-med, Sigga was accepted into the College of Medicine. Of course, she needed more money to continue, so in late April each year of medical school, Sigga took the train home and taught grade school near Wynyard until the last Friday before medical classes began in September. She put her students through the year’s curriculum in less than five months.
Sigga graduated as a medical doctor in 1925, then spent a year working at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Fort Wayne, Indiana. During this time, she and her suitor carried on a daily correspondence. He finally won her heart and on December 3, 1926, Sigga married Dr. Clarence Joseph Houston who had been one year behind her in medical school.
For a year they had a medical practice in Watford City, North Dakota. The remainder of their career was spent in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, where Sigga concentrated on pediatrics and gynecology, while Clarence did surgery and made hospital visits.
Sigga was a woman doctor with an excellent reputation. Her work with infants soon became so well known that parents brought their ailing babies to her, many travelling 100 miles to her office. “The infants were put on a formula that included gruel made from Robinson’s Groats and all soon thrived.”
These were very busy, but happy years as Dr. Sigga practiced medicine and managed the office. Bills were sent out in the fall after harvest. Because the medical office was only two blocks from home, Sigga walked home each day to meet their son Stuart when he got home from school. She gave him an apple and sent him off to play before returning to the office for two more hours of work.
Drs. Clarence and Sigga Houston worked together for fifty years before they both retired in 1975. Sigga was 82 years old, but everyone thought she was 75. Why? Because for many years she lied about her age on all legal documents. When she married in 1926, it wasn’t acceptable for a woman to marry a man seven years younger than she. Finally, at age 90 she admitted her true age.
In 1984, the couple moved to Sunnyside Nursing Home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where Clarence died two years later. Sigga told people she was planning to live to be 100 years old, but she surpassed that goal, dying at age 102. She was born on July 28, 1893, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and died in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on January 21, 1996.
Both Denmark and Iceland took note of the medical work of Dr. Sigga Houston. In 1969 she received the Royal Danish Medal and then in 1987 she received the Order of the Falcon with Knights Cross from Iceland.
It should be no surprise that their only child, Clarence Stuart Houston, chose to become a medical doctor. For several years, he joined their medical practice in Yorkton before he went on to specialize in radiology. Before his retirement, he was a Professor of Radiology at the University of Saskatchewan.
The love of medicine didn’t stop with their son Dr. Stuart Houston. Three of his four children are medical doctors and the fourth son, David Houston. has an M.Sc in mathematics and works as a computer programmer. Dr. Stanley Houston is an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta; Dr. Margaret Houston is a family practitioner and epidemiologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; and Dr. Donald Houston is a hematologist at the University of Manitoba.
Biography written by her son C. Stuart Houston found at Lögberg-Heimskringla link to https://timarit.is/page/2239277
Newspaper obituary from the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.