Dr. Lucille Teasdale was one of the first women in Quebec to become a surgeon
She spent 35 years in northern Uganda, where she and her husband, Dr. Piero Corti, built one of the most modern and best-equipped hospitals in the region. But the years she spent in Uganda were difficult and dangerous and, ultimately, cost her her life.
Lucille Teasdale was born in the east end of Montréal in 1929, the fourth of seven children. At age 12, some missionary nuns came to her school to speak about their work in a Chinese orphanage. Lucille was fascinated and decided at once to become a doctor.
She studied hard and eventually won a scholarship to enter the Université de Montréal medical school in September 1950. She was one of only eight women in her class of 110 students.
Lucille graduated with top marks. She specialized in surgery and interned at Montréal's children's hospital, Ste-Justine. After five gruelling years, she completed her training and became one of Quebec's first female surgeons.
It was while she was working at Ste-Justine that she met a young Italian doctor who was studying pediatrics in Montréal. His name was Piero Corti, and he was immediately smitten with Lucille, but she was too engrossed in her studies to notice.
Off to France
To complete her training, Dr. Teasdale required experience outside Canada. Twenty hospitals in the United States turned her down ("probably because I was a woman," she said), but an offer came for a position in the French city of Marseilles. In September 1960, she sailed for France.
One day, Dr. Corti arrived at her doorstep in Marseilles. He told her he had found a small clinic in northern Uganda run by a handful of nuns and he dreamed of turning it into a first-class hospital to serve the Ugandans. Most important, he needed a surgeon and asked Dr. Teasdale to join him. After much consideration, she agreed to go for two months.
A big adventure
Dr. Teasdale arrived in Uganda in May of 1961 to begin her work. It was a beautiful country, attracting multitudes of tourists who came to enjoy its agreeable climate and many game parks. The following year, Uganda would gain its independence from Britain. The excitement was palpable.
Drs. Teasdale and Corti drove the 300-kilometre journey north and arrived at the clinic at dusk. The nuns showed them around the tiny "hospital" which consisted of one small building with 40 beds and a staff of six.
Dr. Teasdale found she was the only doctor in the region. She spent her mornings checking a long line of outpatients and in the afternoon performed a non-stop succession of operations. Her operating theatre was a makeshift table with a single light bulb.
While Dr. Teasdale worked in the clinic, Dr. Corti canvassed abroad for funds to expand the facilities. Before long, planeloads of equipment began arriving for the hospital and building began. The new facility was named Lacor Hospital, after the nearest town.
Dr. Teasdale's two-month stay stretched into four. It was only when she was about to leave that she realized how much her new life meant to her. It was also clear that she had become very fond of Piero Corti. When she reached Marseilles, a barrage of letters arrived from him begging her to return and to become his wife.
Return to Uganda
Lucille Teasdale returned to Uganda in December 1961 and she and Piero Corti were married in the chapel beside the hospital. After a short honeymoon, they were back on the job. Dr. Corti continued to handle the administration, while Dr. Teasdale examined up to 300 outpatients each morning and spent the afternoons doing surgery. The conditions were still very basic. Electricity was unreliable, clean water was sporadic and there was always a shortage of drugs.
On October 9, 1962, Uganda gained its independence from Britain. As the celebrations unfolded, Ugandans looked forward to a prosperous future. Dr. Corti had managed to expand the hospital facilities with more beds and better equipment. That same year, Lucille Teasdale gave birth to a daughter, Dominique.
But the euphoria did not last long. Less than a decade later, in January 1971, an army officer named Idi Amin overthrew the government and declared himself president.
A period of carnage
For the next eight years, Amin ruled as a tyrant. His soldiers killed any of his rivals, including cabinet ministers, university professors and religious leaders. By 1979, an estimated 300,000 people had died.
The fear and violence spread to the north. Fighting broke out all around Lacor Hospital and a steady influx of wounded soldiers arrived seeking help. Overnight, Dr. Teasdale became a war surgeon.
When Idi Amin was finally overthrown in 1979, Ugandans hoped for a better future. It was not to be. Another decade of civil war followed and Lacor Hospital was often caught in the crossfire. Thugs repeatedly ransacked the compound, looking for drugs or petrol; others kidnapped staff members and held them for ransom.
A devastating blow
The 1980s brought a more personal blow to Lucille Teasdale. She had always taken pride in her abundance of energy and ability to work around the clock if necessary. But in the mid-1980s, her energy began to flag, she lost weight and she was plagued by a persistent cough. When the symptoms continued, she decided to visit a doctor in Italy whose diagnosis stunned both she and Piero Corti. Teasdale had contracted AIDS, probably while operating on wounded soldiers.
Source: Library and Archives Canada
Honours and recognition
1. In 1986, she and her husband were awarded the World Health Organization's Sasakawa Health Prize, "given to one or more persons, institutions or nongovernmental organizations having accomplished outstanding innovative work in health development, in order to encourage the further development of such work".
2. In 1990, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
3. In 1995, she was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec.
4. In 1996 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Montreal.
5. In 1999, Canada Post issued a 46-cent stamp in her honour.
5. In 1999, Parc Lucille-Teasdale in Montreal was named in her honour.
6. In 2001, she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
7. In 2001, Lucille-Teasdale secondary school in Blainville, Quebec was built and it has been named in her honour.
8. There is a CSSS (Centre de Santé et de Services Sociaux - Health and Social Service Center) named after her in Montreal and also a road, Boulevard Lucille Teasdale.
10. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada give an award named after her and Piero Corti for Canadian physicians "who, while providing health care or emergency medical services, go beyond the accepted norms of routine practice, which may include exposure to personal risk. The recipient's action will exemplify altruism and integrity, courage and perseverance in the alleviation of human suffering.for Canadian physicians who go beyond the accepted norms of routine practice to exemplify altruism and integrity, courage and perseverance in the alleviation of human suffering".
11. A TV movie of her story was made in 2000. It is an inspiring story of two dedicated physicians and their humanitarian service in a very needy African mission. It is especially important for women students to have this courageous woman role model and to realize special difficulties that women face.
Watch videos about Dr. Lucille Teasdale-Corti here:
Lacor Hospital is a private, non-profit Ugandan hospital, whose mission is to guarantee affordable medical services in particular to the most needy.
Founded in 1959 by the Comboni Missionaries for the Gulu Catholic Diocese, after 1961 it was managed and developed by a husband and wife team Drs Piero Corti (an Italian paediatrician) and Lucille Teasdale Corti (a Canadian surgeon) up until their deaths: Lucille in 1996 of professionally acquired AIDS and Piero in 2003.
A major hospital - with 482 beds and 3 peripheral health centres (with 24 beds each) Lacor Hospital is a major, referral level hospital offering a vast range of diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive medicine services. Over 300,000 patients are treated annually, half of whom are children under the age of six.
An extended and integrated approach to health care - Lacor Hospital is fully integrated into the Uganda National Strategic Health plan and adheres to the principle of complementarity to avoid wasteful duplication of services in the Health Sector’s insufficient resources.
In the forefront of health training in Uganda - Over 250 resident students attend the hospital’s schools for nursing, laboratory assistants, training of Health Educators and AIDS counsellors. The hospital is also a university teaching site for the Government University of Gulu Faculty of Medicine, which was inaugurated in 2003/2004. The hospital also trains "on the job" masons, carpenters, electricians.
For more please visit Corti Foundation