Physician, mother, teacher. Born April 11, 1921, in Vancouver, died Aug. 5, 2012, in London, Ont., of complications from injury, aged 91.
‘People always interest me,” Nita said as we wheeled her through the park after she’d struck up a conversation with a stranger. She wanted to be out among people. She took an interest in their stories and their troubles, even in the midst of her own difficulties.
Nita Wood was the daughter of a blacksmith. When he suffered a head injury, the family was plunged into poverty. Nita was raised by her mother, Louise, brother Jimmy and sister Winnie.
During the Depression, she came down with tuberculosis and was sent to Tranquille Sanatorium. She nurtured a dream of becoming a physician – an extraordinary ambition for a woman in the 1940s, especially in her circumstances.
She worked in restaurants to pay her way until her marks earned her a scholarship.
In a chemistry lab at the University of British Columbia, she met Bruce Casselman and together they entered the world of medicine at the University of Toronto.
When she first presented herself to the dean, he said, “We have found that young women often leave medicine after they marry. So tell me, Miss. Wood, why should we admit you?”
She replied that she had every intention of practising for a long time.
Nita was one of only eight women among the 168 graduates in the class of 1952.
She went on to study neurology in London, England, and Montreal. Mindful of the way that mental health was affected by life experiences as well as organic influences, she studied psychiatry at Columbia University. To keen observation, she added a special empathy for others.
In New York, Montreal, Ottawa and finally London, Ont., she helped a remarkable range of people, young and old, artists, musicians and architects, men and women in business and university, carrying on her practice long after her classmates had retired.
She taught in university and became a mentor and role model to younger women in several professions.
Nita and Bruce hoped for children and eventually, after surgery, Nita gave birth to Jay (Ian) and Ken.
Bruce was quietly ahead of his time, supporting Nita’s desire to practice medicine and willing to participate in housekeeping and child-rearing. A research scientist and government official active in the World Health Organization, Bruce was with Nita until he died in 1995.
Both of them made a special effort to support the education of their sons and granddaughters.
Nita loved cooking, music and theatre. She travelled across Canada, trying to hold her extended family together, and ventured through Europe and as far away as China.
She thought she would spend her 80s writing, playing piano and gardening, but on Sept. 22, 2003, a car accident left her with a serious spinal cord injury. She endured persistent pain and progressive loss of the use of her limbs.
Perhaps without knowing it, she took on a new role as teacher: Anyone who visited her came away with a better understanding of the importance of maintaining an engagement with life, an attachment to people and a sense of humour.
Jay Cassel is Nita’s son; Ron Williams is her friend.
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