Apothecary bottle holds history of Mennonite midwife

Judy Peters, PembinaValleyOnline, April 7, 2024

The Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach has an apothecary bottle with quite a story to tell. 

Senior Curator Andrea Klassen says this item once belonged to a Mennonite midwife who practiced in the area near Winkler, Manitoba between 1885 and 1907. 

Klassen tells the story of Katharina (née Born) Thiessen. 

Katharina lived with her family in Fuerstenau, Molotschna Colony, New Russia and around 1860, went to Germany to study midwifery. 

She married Abraham Thiessen in 1862 and in 1874, their family immigrated to Kansas, where they farmed, and she continued her medical work. 

In 1885 they moved to the Mennonite West Reserve in Manitoba (between Winkler and Schanzenfeld) and joined the Bergthaler Church in 1893. 

Katharina continued her practice as a doctor in Manitoba and was well-received because she had medical knowledge, experience, and spoke the language of her Mennonite patients, Low German. 

After some time, the family built a large house out of which Katharina practiced.  It contained a reception area, pharmacy, operating room, and rooms for patients who had to stay overnight. 

She continued her medical training, travelling to Cincinnati, Ohio for more medical training in 1895. 

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the formal medical establishment was taking shape in Manitoba and, although the doctors in the area saw her expertise, they were threatened by Katharina, an unlicensed medical practitioner and they sued her for $50 for practicing without a medical license. 

Katharina paid the fine and, while she continued to practice, her work shifted to focusing on selling patent medicines.  

She retired in 1907 after her husband suffered a stroke.