Ed note: Sigga Christianson, part of the first generation of North American Icelanders to attend university, practiced medicine for 50 years.
When she died at 102½, she was the oldest woman medical doctor in Canada. Her legacy, and her dynasty, includes another three generations of MDs.
Her story, our new serial, is told by her son who is an acknowledged author as well as the former head of the Department of Medical Imaging at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
Geir Kristjansson, my afi, son of Kristjans Jonsson and Halldora Thorarinsdottir, was born May 23, 1860. He was raised in the fisherman’s village of Hafnarfjörður just south of Reykjavík. To avoid the hazards of a fisherman’s life, his mother persuaded Geir to train as a carpenter; this is said to have included time as an apprentice in Denmark.
In the 1880s, the labour-intensive part of farming was during the haying season. Cut by a scythe, the hay was turned over daily with a pitchfork, to let it dry and avoid damage by mildew in that wet climate, especially in years when a large iceberg settled in a nearby fjord. Geir’s only living sister, Kristin, lived on a farm, Grimatunga, in the valley of Vatnsdal, in the parish of Undirfell, south of Blönduós, near the north coast of Iceland. Geir was one of the many men from near Reykjavík who sought temporary work in the northern hayfields, somewhat similar to the labourers who came on trains from Ontario to western Canada to work during harvest.
In the Undirfell hayfield, in 1888, Geir worked alongside Sesselja Rakel Sveinsdóttir. Sesselja, born Aug 12, 1857, was the daughter of Svein Ásmundsson and Sigríður Jónsdóttir, and had been raised at Starrastaðir, very close to the Mælifell church, south of Varmahlið in Skagafjörður.
Starrastaðir was at best a marginal farm where Svein barely eked out a living. When Rev. Hjörleifur Einarsson moved from Mælifell to Undirfell in the late 1880s, Sesselja had gone along to work as his maid. (During our Questers Nature Tour that circumnavigated Iceland in August 1975, we visited Starrastaðir and Hnausar, cousin Leifur Sveinbjörnsson’s dairy farm in Hunavatnsyssla.)
Geir returned to the Undirfell district for the subsequent haying season, 1889. He planned to propose marriage. During the first day of haying, Geir noted Sesselja’s absence and asked where she was. “Gone to Amerika” was the answer. Not to be deterred, Geir joined the next group of emigrant Icelanders. Some hundreds from the Icelandic community appeared at the Winnipeg train station to welcome them. The apocryphal story that has passed down through Geir’s children concludes with Geir arriving in Winnipeg with only 25 cents in his pocket and asking loudly “Where can I find Sessselja Rakel?” His request “buzzed” down to the end of the line, where someone called out, “Ja, Ja. Sesslja is working as a maid in the hotel at Pembina” – a mile south of the 49th parallel in North Dakota.
Geir quickly went to Sesselja, married her, and moved to Grand Forks to become a successful carpenter. Although the son of Kristjans, the immigration authorities entered his surname spelling as Christianson instead of Kristjansson. Geir built a home with two extra bedrooms. When outdoor building slowed to a standstill in winter, room and board from University students helped defray the expenses of a growing family. Bill, the oldest, was born March 25 1892 and Sigrithur, the second child, nicknamed Sigga, June 28 1893, followed by Halldora (Dora) and Bjork (Babs). Sigga, the best student of the four, was impressed by the students in their home and set her heart on a University education.
To be continued next issue.