Anna Creighton Laing was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1898. She was raised in a conservative, quintessentially Victorian-era Presbyterian home. She, and all her brothers and sisters were all bright, well-read, well-spoken. They only spoke when there was something important to say. But she was always different from her sisters and brothers. Her sisters grew their hair long and tied it up in pretty buns – she wore her hair short. Her sisters wore pretty dresses. She wore simple blouses and long skirts. One day, she approached her father with a request that spoke of how different she was from the culture she had been raised in – she asked for permission to become a doctor. An eye doctor, to be exact. He granted her permission, saying that she was free to pursue any path as long as she could earn an honest living at it. By 1927, she was a resident ophthalmologist at Bellevue Medical Center – the first woman to be granted that distinction.
In an era when women weren’t doctors, she found her path. She was not satisfied with the choices Victorian-era Canada and America offered a woman and sought something more. She was unsatisfied with the way poor women had no access to proper medical and gynecological care and she became a medical adviser to Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. She believed in women’s rights, in civil rights, in the rights of every human being to choose his or her own destiny. And she fought quietly, gaining the respect and acceptance of the men in her surroundings. They saw her as more than a woman, they saw her as a peer. She gained their acceptance through her accomplishments.
In the height of her practice, she had three offices – one in downtown Manhattan, one in Harlem, and one on Long Island. She ran these on her own. She married an accountant with a temper, who, when the Depression struck, had no work for over 12 years. It was her training and her business that kept her family from the brink of starvation while her husband was unable to work. She accepted trade for saving people’s eyes when they couldn’t afford to pay her, and sometimes they couldn’t even pay in trade, but she helped them anyway – because it was the right thing to do.
She was the hallmark of a lady; graceful, delicate, always dressed modestly but crisply, her hair always done. She was soft-spoken, but her words carried great weight. She was sharp, highly intelligent, carried conversations on any topic, keeping pace with any man, woman or child who engaged her.
Years after her husband died of a stroke, it was her medical practice that paid for her comfortable, yet simple way of life. She never remarried. Instead of moving on to the next man to look after her, like so many women in her position, at her age would do, she traveled around the world, practicing medicine, learning about cultures, bringing pieces of them home to her children and grandchildren.
She taught us how to play the piano, she read fairy tales in French and Spanish. She took in a Chinese woman who was exiled from her home and family in China when the Communists took over the country, rendering her passport null and void. Friends representing so many cultures regularly visited her in her older years, at her home on Long Island, right next door to my childhood home. And she encouraged her grandchildren to socialize with her educated, refined, multinational friends – doctors, UN diplomats, German, Indian, Camaroonian, Japanese.
She practiced ophthalmology until she was 87 years old, not because she had to but because of her compassion, her desire to provide anyone who needed it with the medical care they needed. Ironically, it was macular degeneration that ended her six decade career. She was penniless, having never charged for her services what they were worth and never asked more than they could afford.
She never raised a fist or a voice to fight for suffrage or feminism. She believed in these things, but she chose to live by example instead. She preferred to teach others around her the value of a woman – another human – rather than shout about it in their faces. She just WAS. She wasn’t a pacifist or silent against the societal anchors that would prevent another woman of lesser determination from becoming just what and who she aspired to be. She just proved them all wrong in her soft spoken, powerful words and actions.
Anna Creighton Laing was my grandmother. I would rather my actions and interactions with the people around me speak for my beliefs, to lead by example, for my contributions to count because I chose a meaningful path. I am her legacy and I will live by her steadfast example.