Dr. Elizabeth MacRae | Forging the path for women in neurosurgery

Dr. Elizabeth (Betty) MacRae was just a three-year-old when she began to dream of a career in medicine. 

Author

Aisling Gamble, Cumming School of Medicine

Dr. Elizabeth (Betty) MacRae was just a three-year-old when she began to dream of a career in medicine.  “After a brief stay in hospital, I announced that I wanted to be a doctor” she says. Through her teenage years, as she read about Dr. Norman Bethune and Dr. Wilder Penfield, the seed was planted for Betty’s future as a neurosurgeon.

In 1981, Betty became the first female neurosurgeon to complete her training in Canada. She would remain in the country for her entire career.  Looking back on the obstacles she faced early on, she wants others to know they should not let negative comments or thoughts be a deterrent.  “If you have a dream, follow it, and be prepared to work hard to accomplish that dream,” she says. “You know you are doing the right thing when you love what you are doing.”

Arriving at the University of Calgary in 1982 from Toronto, Betty was a clinical associate professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences.  Her position involved teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students. “Surgical and neurosurgical residents were taught the technical aspects of surgery but just as important is the care of a surgical patient and their families” she says.

As a pioneer for women in neurosurgery, Betty forged a path that has led other young women to embrace the profession. Her devotion to helping and inspiring female residents in neurosurgery has given her the opportunity to be a mentor to many. 

“Being a mentor is one of the most gratifying aspects of my career,” she says. “One week ago, I had dinner at my home with staff neurosurgeons and residents, all female, currently in the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) neurosurgery program. It is a privilege to mentor such talented and enthusiastic young students and physicians.” 

Betty has been recognized nationally for her role as a mentor.  In 2010, the Royal College of Physicians & Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC) named her Mentor of the Year (Zone 1), and the following year, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) awarded her with the May Cohen Award for Women Mentors.

During her years at CSM, Betty says one of the joys of being in the medical profession is being able to interact with students, residents and colleagues. “The students are bright, enthusiastic, inquisitive. And there is excellent, collegial collaboration with colleagues,” she says.  

As she looks back on her time at CSM during its first 50 years, Betty says she feels extremely proud to have been a tiny part of it all.  “It has been a joy to watch it become a force in medical teaching, research, and innovation.”  Looking ahead to the future, Betty would like to see more women in leadership roles and for CSM to be known around the world for its creativity in education and innovation in technology.

Now retired, Betty enjoys the ‘all my days are weekends’ days, filled up with things like reading, golfing, skiing, travelling, and photography.  She and her husband David love to travel. Betty counts a safari in Kenya and Tanzania, and a trip to Antarctica as two of her favourite travel adventures.  Her motto, she says, is ‘Live life to its fullest.’  “A long time ago, I read a quote about how some people die at age 30 but don’t have a funeral until age 80. This left a lasting impression.”

Tidbits from Betty:

Who do you most admire? I admire all those who have faced adversity and with courage, determination, and hard work have succeeded. 

If you could make a living doing anything of your choice, what would it be? A travel and wildlife photographer, or a Parks Canada employee with search and rescue or a forest ranger. 

What is something people would be surprised to know about you? I played the bagpipes in the Toronto Girls Pipe Band during high school. 

What are some of your favourites?

  • Food:                    Italian
  • Movies:                Dr. Zhivago, and non-violent action movies.
  • Music:                  Classical.
  • Sports team:       Canadian alpine ski team.