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Then & Now: Meet the Nickel City’s pioneering power couple

Thomas Ryan served three terms as mayor of the Town of Sudbury when it was little more than a railway camp, while his wife, Helen, was one of Canada’s first female physicians

Long before the term "power couple" was coined, Thomas and Helen Ryan were influential partners when Sudbury was little more than a railway camp.

Thomas served three one-year terms as mayor from 1899 to 1901. His wife, a doctor, was one of the first woman physicians in Canada. 

Born in Mount Forest in 1860, Helen Elizabeth Reynolds studied to become a teacher and then continued her studies at Queen's University in Kingston. 

Although women were accepted at the medical school in 1880, during Helen's time there, some professors and male classmates "harassed" them and protested against female students. This resulted in the creation of Women's Medical College in 1883.

Helen was the college's first graduate in 1885 and the first woman to be granted membership in the Canadian Medical Association. She missed being the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical school by two years. (Queen's Women's Medical College closed in 1894 and women were not allowed into Queen's Faculty of Medicine until 1943.)

The new doctor didn't have much luck overcoming chauvinism after graduation. She opened an office in Toronto, but eventually went into practice with her younger brother in her hometown.

She was a newlywed in 1890 when she moved to Sudbury where her husband was a Crown Land agent. She opened an office in her home and maintained a practice from 1890 to 1907 while raising a young family of five children: Helen, Grace, Aimee, William Horace and Thomas Harold.

The 1901 Canadian Census indicates the Ryans had a live-in housekeeper.

Helen travelled into the bush by handcar on the railroad, by canoe, by or hiking to treat patients. She had a special interest in women and children's health issues.

Thomas John, known as T.J., was born in Grey County and was two years older than his wife. He became treasurer and clerk of the Township of McKim, and was a justice of the peace. He was active in community affairs, served on town council, and became the Town of Sudbury's fifth mayor.

During his final term as  mayor, Thomas welcomed American inventor Thomas Edison to Sudbury. 

Edison opened an office in Sudbury while he prospected in the Falconbridge area hoping to find nickel for the alkaline battery he developed for an electric car engine. As we know, Edison left disappointed, but in 1915 nickel would be discovered near his test sites. 

Sudbury's mayor welcomed Edison in an address given from the veranda of the second floor of the New American Hotel in August 1901.*

Ryan said, "On behalf of the people of Sudbury we desire to extend to you the most cordial welcome to our town, and also to assure you of our great appreciation of your visit to this district. 

"Your world-known reputation as a great inventor has preceded you here, and we feel that your incessant work in the development of the subtle energy called ‘electricity’ is fully deserving public recognition wherever you may go; therefore, we take this opportunity to express to you our admiration for the many important inventions in the electrical field for which mankind is in debt to your genius. 

"In regards to your visit here, we trust that the country will be interesting to you – this portion of New Ontario abounds with natural resources of all kinds. We have here, as you know, the only nickel mines of any importance on the American continent, and we hope that you may become interested in their development in a practical way. 

"The mineral belt of the district has been pretty thoroughly explored, and a large number of nickel properties have been brought up by different companies within the past two years. But there are still left in the hands of the original owners enough good workable ore deposits to equip two or more new companies with plenty of mines. 

"The demand for nickel is growing rapidly every year, and at the present high price for the metal and its oxides, there is undoubtedly big money to be made in the proper working of these nickel- copper mines. 

"We trust that your visit to the district may be pleasant and eventually profitable to you and beneficial to our town."

By 1907, the Ryans were prosperous enough to retire while still in their 40s to Victoria, B.C.

The Ryans' stately Edwardian home, known as Ownyara, is considered a heritage property and, as of 2019, still owned by members of their family.

Helen did not practise medicine in Victoria, although her advice was often sought by people who knew she was a doctor.

Thomas died in 1921 at the age of 62 after a short illness. The Victoria Daily Colonist (May 24, 1921) reported the former Ontario politician and prominent civil servant enjoyed his retirement years, had a wide circle of friends and was interested in civic affairs.

Helen became a champion for women's rights to vote and to pursue an education. She addressed numerous women's groups throughout the province. A charter member of the Victoria University's Women Club, she was given a life membership. 

She lived in her beautiful house in the tony James Bay neighbourhood of Victoria with her oldest son, William Horace, and his wife until her death at 87 in 1947.

Dr. Helen Reynolds Ryan would no doubt be happy to know the number of female graduates from Canadian medical schools in recent years has been slightly higher than men. She would also be surprised to learn the frontier town where she practised medicine for 17 years has a medical school.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine, and has a special interest in local history. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


* Thomas A. Edison, Sudbury, Ontario, (Located in the Mary Shantz Room at the MacKenzie St. Library. 971.3133 THO)
Greater Sudbury, 1883-2008, The Story of Our Times, Laurentian Publishing, 2008
Victoria Times Colonist, Dr. Helen Ryan, Pioneer Doctor, Passes at Jubilee Hospital, July 7, 1947 
City of Greater Sudbury Archives, Item 5 -T. J. Ryan 1899, 1900, 1901 - 5



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Vicki Gilhula

About the Author: Vicki Gilhula

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer.
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