Margaret Anchoretta Ormsby
The woman who wrote the book on BC history
It is fair to say that Margaret Ormsby remained "the leading historian of British Columbia" throughout her long and distinguished career, and even after her retirement from the University of British Columbia. Sadly, she passed away in her home at Coldstream, near Vernon, BC on November 2, 1996, at the age of 87.
Dr. Ormsby is known most widely for her book, British Columbia: A History. Hers was the first modern attempt to explain the development of British Columbia to British Columbians. It was an effort that satisfied both the general reader and the scholar for over 30 years after its 1958 publication. Her clear prose, adherence to documents, and mixture of anecdote and analysis gave the history of British Columbia a shape and a place in the larger history of Canada it had not had before. Even today, with a couple of new general histories of the province in the book stores, hers remains an essential reference for anyone seeking to understand the political and economic development of modern British Columbia.
This book was immediately recognized as an important contribution and tributes followed. Dr. Ormsby may be the only scholar ever to have received an honorary doctorate from four British Columbia Universities; the University of Manitoba also conveyed their highest honour upon her. She was awarded the Centennial Medal in 1967, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1968 and in recognition of her contribution to the wider Canadian intellectual community Dr. Ormsby was elected president of the Canadian Historical Association in 1965. She received this province's highest honour, the Order of British Columbia, and in January 1996, Dr. Ormsby received one of the highest honours open to a Canadian citizen, an appointment to the Order of Canada. She served the wider community through her membership on the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada from 1960-8, the BC Heritage Advisory Board, 1971-83, and on the Board of Governors of Okanagan College 1980-85.
Dr. Ormsby was a pioneer in more than just her historical scholarship. One of the few students from the Okanagan and one of the very few women students, Margaret Ormsby started at the University of British Columbia in 1925 just as it moved to its present location. She took both her bachelor and masters degree in history at U.B.C. and took a year of teacher's training. Having won a fellowship to the prestigious Bryn Mawr College she earned her doctorate there in 1937.
She served as Head of the History Department at U.B.C. from 1965 to 1974. According to Dr. Alan Tully, another past Chair of the department, "Under her leadership the department quadrupled in size. She really brought the history department at U.B.C. into the modern era." She oversaw, as Chair, the development of a Ph.D. programme.
Although she taught in San Francisco, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and for three decades at U.B.C. in Vancouver, her heart and her scholarship were never far from the Okanagan Valley where she was raised. The Valley imprinted itself strongly on her and she contributed more than anyone else to putting the history of the Okanagan in print.
Her work includes A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison, an Okanagan Pioneer; a recent history of Coldstream, where she had lived after her retirement; a period as editor of the Okanagan Historical Society Report; the definitive works on the history of agriculture in British Columbia, an introduction to Fort Victoria Letters, 1846-51, and numerous articles on the history of the Okanagan in a variety of journals. Her interpretation of British Columbia history and its early governors is widely spread through major encyclopaedias.
Few historians become important figures in the history of their region in their own right, and in their own time. By helping British Columbians to better understand themselves through her writing and teaching, Margaret Ormsby was one of these exceptions.