By Ewa Chwojko-Srawley
Dr. Elizabeth McLean is the true definition of a Renaissance woman; dedicating her life to medicine, while capturing the beauty of the world around her on canvas, traveling the globe, exploring new cultures, and helping those in need.
When twelve-year-old Elizabeth got her first box of oil paints, she decided to be an artist. Yet, the allure of medicine also captivated her curious mind, thanks to her upbringing in a family of scientists, with a nurse for a mother.
The Faculty of Medicine at U of T was resistant to accepting women; but this did not deter her. She embraced the challenge and set out to prove that she was better than her male counterparts.
She had a heavy course load, but she also played every available sport, even using pseudonyms because the university limited women to just two activities. She wasn’t going to let that rule stop her. She also didn’t walk away from her sporting endeavours empty-handed.
“I never achieved championship status, but I cherish a letter of recognition from the sports department acknowledging my contribution for being the team’s resident comic relief!” laughs Dr. McLean.
She joined Dr. Burrows’ Medical Clinic in Georgina in 1970. Unlike most of her colleagues, who preferred the hustle and bustle of the city, she had her sights set on a rural community. She stayed there until her retirement in 2008, with only occasional periods outside of Georgina.
One day, while paddling on Lake Simcoe, she serendipitously crossed paths with Robin, the man who would be her future husband. Sadly, he passed away while their daughters were still very young. She chose to raise her children in the same place where their love story began, in Georgina.
Whoever thinks that practicing as a GP in a rural community would be boring clearly has not lived a day in the life of this doctor. “It’s like a wild adventure that kept me on my toes 60 hours a week,” she recalls.
With thousands of patients under her care, she was a busy doctor who never knew what the next day would bring. She delivered babies, rescued ice fishers, and responded to all sorts of accidents – including one where she had to insist that firefighters transport a house fire victim to hospital. Of course, most of these emergencies occurred in the dead of night.
As if her job was not challenging enough, she often ventured to remote Northern communities. On one occasion, she arrived with her team at Fort Severn, on Hudson Bay, only to have her plane land on a frozen river far from the mainland. Ski-doos arrived, but the drivers were more interested in picking up the food supplies! So what did Dr. McLean do? She led her team on a walk through -60°C weather towards the land until the ski-doos finally returned – this time for the people.
As if her schedule was not jam-packed enough, she somehow managed to find time to become a lecturer and Assistant Professor at U of T. And that’s not all – she also served on numerous boards (medical, arts, and sports) and jet-setted around the world. And no, she wasn’t just lounging on beaches – she was doing volunteer work in places like Tanzania, Malawi, Haiti, El Salvador, Cambodia, and more.
In Cambodia she even got her own path! That’s right, this volunteer extraordinaire has a butterfly path named after her.
“I’m a travel enthusiast at heart,” she says, “but when it’s time to head back home, I can’t help but feel a rush of excitement – I guess there really is no place like my home in Georgina.
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