Margaret Ridley Charlton

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Canadian medical librarian 800px-Flag of Canada.svg.png, Margaret 'Anne' Ridley Charlton
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See also Canadian health librarians — current, emerging & past 800px-Flag of Canada.svg.png | Important librarians in history | William Osler | Osler Library of the History of Medicine

Margaret Ridley Charlton (10 December 1858 – 1 May 1931), children's author, teacher and early pioneer in medical libraries, was born into a middle-class Victorian family in 1858 in La Prairie Quebec, a small town near Montreal on the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Christened Margaret Anne she later changed her middle name to Ridley to honour her paternal descent from Bishop Nicholas Ridley, who was burned at the stake in Oxford in 1555. At one point, Charlton assumed an unlikely pseudonym, "Lynn Hetherington", for publishing purposes, a name she derived from the family's ancestral seat in Northern England. Margaret Charlton, like many other librarians, came to her love of books through literary and scholarly interests, although librarianship was not her first career. Charlton's success in a field dominated by men helped to pave the way for other Canadian professional women.

See Margaret Ridley Charlton tribute at Parks Canada.

Education & early career

Margaret Charlton was educated at home until she was sixteen. In 1874, however, she became one of the first females admitted to the Montréal High School, graduating in 1877. Before working as a teacher in the 1880s, Charlton joined the editorial staff of the Dominion Illustrated and collaborated with her friend Charlotte A. Frazer in writing children's stories and historical romances. Charlton was deeply aggrieved by her friend Frazer's sudden death in 1894 but she redirected her grief by turning to librarianship as a career, which was hardly known as a profession in Canada at the time. In the late 1890s, Charlton is known to have taken courses in librarianship at Amherst College in Massachusetts which were likely taught by Melvil Dewey.

By 1897, Charlton had helped to found the then Association of Medical Librarians (see archives) which in 1907 became the Medical Library Association (MLA). (In 1976, a group of Canadian librarians from the MLA came together to form CHLA/ABSC (Canada).) Charlton’s first position as a librarian was in the Montreal YMCA library but moved to the McGill University Medical Library (now McGill Life Sciences Library) a department of the Faculty of Medicine.

It is thought that the difficulties Charlton experienced in her career were due to her outspokenness on issues she cared about in a male-dominated field. By 1896, Charlton had become the McGill medical library's first Assistant Librarian, a position she occupied until 1914. However, she resigned due to problems that arose at McGill and moved to Toronto to become Librarian of the Academy of Medicine. The British and Canadian medical associations held a joint meeting in Montreal in 1897, and it was probably there that Charlton met William Osler, who had graduated from McGill in 1872. Osler showed an interest in libraries and had served on the Faculty's Library Committee while at McGill.

Involvement in MLA

William Osler and Charlton got involved in the formation of the Association of Medical Librarians which was formally founded on 2 May 1898. Four librarians and four physicians met in the Philadelphia Medical Journal offices at the invitation of its editor George M. Gould. The goal was to foster medical libraries and exchange medical literature among library members. Membership was limited to those librarians working in medical libraries of 500 volumes or more, with regular hours and attendance. Charlton served as the Association's first secretary from 1898-1903, again from 1909-1911, after a name change to the MLA - Medical Library Association (U.S.) in 1907. Another founding member, Marcia C. Noyes, was the first woman and non-physician President of the MLA in 1933 who wrote:

"Miss Charlton was the one person who indirectly brought the Association into being ....She had belonged to the American Library Association. Their problems were not our problems, and she felt lost and that time was wasted, yet she had striven for contact with those doing just the sort of work she was doing. And so she suggested to Dr. Osler that it would be a fine thing if the Medical Libraries could do the same thing the American Library Association was doing." ~ Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1934;23:33.

Death and posthumous honours

Plaque honouring Margaret Ridley Charlton ~ McGill Life Sciences Library

In 1922, Margaret Charlton left the Academy of Medicine in Toronto under less than happy circumstances. She later returned to Montréal and died there on 1 May 1931. Charlton is buried beside her mother and two of her three sisters in the Mount Royal Cemetery. In 2000, Charlton was recommended to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a "person of national historic significance". In 2003, she was added to the list of approximately 600 other "persons of national historic significance." In 2006 a plaque honouring her accomplishments was unveiled outside the McGill Life Sciences Library (formerly the McGill Medical Library).

Summary of Charlton's importance

  • Margaret Charlton co-founded the MLA - Medical Library Association (U.S.) in 1898, an international association and leader in the field
  • As a medical librarian at two major medical research libraries from 1895 to 1922, Charlton innovated library practices at a time when most medical librarians were male doctors and librarianship was not yet recognized as a profession
  • In addition to her pioneering contribution to medical history in Lower Canada, Carlton wrote numerous historical works and children’s fiction

Winners of the Margaret Charlton Award

One of Canada's great honours for medical librarians is the Margaret Ridley Charlton Award for Outstanding Achievement. Among Margaret Charlton's many contributions to medical librarianship is her paper "Outlines of the History of the Medicine in Lower Canada" which was published in the Annals of medical history in 1923.


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