Elizabeth Adamson, Ontario’s first licensed druggist, and Annie McFadden, frontier nurse who helped battle a smallpox epidemic, are among the unsung heroines of the oil fields of Lambton County in the 1800s. As late as the 1960s, women owned a relatively small percentage of the retail trade in Lambton County, largely because men made up the vast majority of the thousands of people who flocked to Oil Springs, when oil was discovered. However, female pioneers, such as the few mentioned here, can be found in the county’s business past.
Refusing to bend before the social traditions, and legal and commercial customs of her era, Elizabeth Adamson stands as, perhaps, the most prominent example of a successful business woman at the time. Her story begins with George Adamson’s appointment in the early 1860s as the village’s court clerk. He moved his wife and two small children to the rough-and-tumble village of Oil Springs in 1863. While the Adamsons were building their house, the village doctor persuaded George to add a small wing to hold an office and drug store. After the house was completed, Elizabeth worked as an assistant in the drug store of Dr. Samuel Macklem.
Under his direction, Adamson studied the art and science of pharmacy. In 1866, she purchased the doctor’s stock of herbs, chemicals, and medicines and struck out on her own. Not long afterwards, Adamson became the province’s first licensed female pharmacist. After the collapse of the local oil boom, most retailers in Oil Springs either plunged into insolvency, or abandoned the village altogether. The druggist persevered. To keep her shop afloat, she wisely diversified her stock to include a line of groceries. Adamson stayed in business until she was in her late 50s. In 1886, her daughter Lucy took over the store’s management. A few years later, John Windlow bought the pharmacy.