A Year of Canadian History – February

This is the second instalment of a 12 part series I am calling “A Year In Canadian History.” You may recall that my plan is to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday by posting monthly about an aspect of Canadian history around the time of Confederation (including people, history and fibre related activities).  As a caveat, I want to say here that I recognise that Canada’s history is far from perfect, but even with these imperfections, I believe that the Canada of today is a great place to live, with beautiful landscapes and filled with friendly, welcoming and diverse people.  I am proud to live here and to be Canadian.

This month, I thought it would be interesting to look into the family life of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A., Macdonald.  Other than knowing he was the first Canadian Prime Minister, was involved in expanding the railroad across Canada and had a reputation for drinking too much, I knew very little about this iconic figure in Canadian history. Somehow, I always find that learning some of the personal stories about historical figures makes them feel more real and more like people than by simply reading the facts in a history book.

The Invisible Lady

Sir John A. Macdonald’s first marriage was to Isabella Clark in 1843.  Isabella was John A.’s first cousin; however, marriage to a cousin was not the taboo that it is today.  Isabella was born in Scotland in 1811 and by the time of her marriage was 33 years old, well into spinsterhood.  She soon developed a chronic illness that was to plague her for the remainder of her life.

Isabella Macdonald (1852) (Library and Archives Canada)


Isabella’s illness was a mystery at the time and remains a mystery today.  She was diagnosed with a variety of illnesses including hysteria, hypochondria, uterine neuralgia and tics.  She had headaches, a severe cough and was often confined to her bed.  One reference suggests that she had two illnesses, one which developed in 1848, which was most likely tuberculosis (consumption) and the other which was characterised by extreme fatigue, recurrent long lasting headaches and confusion, characterised at the time as a somatization disorder. At one point Isabella herself described “…an apparent numbness of one limb and an irregularity  in the action of the heart.”  She did not lack for medical attention, seeing some of the most illustrious doctors of the time in Philadelphia and New York.   Her disease seemed to involve fairly dramatic “attacks” followed by periods of remission, and modern day doctors and historians have suggested that she may have had lupus or multiple sclerosis.

Although she had some periods of good health, the marriage was dominated by her illness.  In fact, John A. referred to her as the “Invisible Lady” because even though she was often confined to her bedroom, emerging only occasionally to the dining room, she made her presence felt throughout the household and ran it successfully.  She also relied on opium (laudanum) for pain management and was likely addicted to it.  However, it should be noted that opium was not regulated at the time and was often administered to the “weaker sex” to manage pain, hysteria and a multitude of problems.

John A.and Isabella had two children.  The first was a son, named John Alexander after his father, who was born in 1847 and died at 13 months, likely due to sudden infant death syndrome.  Their second child was Hugh John, who was born when Isabella was 39 years of age.  He lived and became a politician, following in his father’s footsteps.  Isabella succombed to her illness in 1857 at the age of 46.


Isabella Macdonald – 1852 (Library and Archives Canada)

I think what I find most fascinating about Isabella Macdonald is the fact that I had not heard of her and the tragic story of her life.  Knowing several people with chronic illnesses, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live with such an illness in the early 1800s, at a time when many women’s ailments were passed over as hysteria and hypochondria. I also think that it is a marvel to me that John A. Macdonald was able to become the man that he did while also trying to manage the difficulties of her illness and the tragic loss of her first son makes.  I also wonder if this tragic part of his life contributed to his heavy drinking?  Perhaps it is because of these trials that he was able to later bring Canada together as a country during Confederation (1867).

I am newly inspired to revisit Miss Lambert’s My Knitting Book after reading that Isabella and Sir John A. Macdonald were married in 1843, the year that the book was published. Although Isabella’s life can be viewed as tragic in many ways, we could view knitting as a potentially positive aspect of her life.  Perhaps Isabella had a copy of this book as a well to do woman in what would become Canada.  Perhaps she used knitting as a way to pass the time when she was confined to her bed.  Perhaps she knit up her hopes and dreams for her two babies into blankets, socks and other garments to keep them warm in the cold Canadian winters.  We will likely never know but I, for one, would like to think so.

What do you think about Isabella’s life?  Do you know of any other women in history who may have suffered as she did?  Please share below, I would love to hear learn more about these women!


John A. Macdonald: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_john_alexander_12E.html

Maconald’s First Wife:  http://www.thewhig.com/2010/01/13/macdonalds-first-wife

Bellevue National Histori Site:  http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/on/bellevue/natcul/natcul1.aspx

The Invisible Lady:  Sir John A. Macdonald’s First Wife http://www.cbmh.ca/index.php/cbmh/article/viewFile/55/54

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