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Allisonian Firsts: Clara Dennis

A virtual exhibition celebrating the bold Allisonians who became the "firsts" in their field.

Clara Dennis

First female honorary degree recipient from Mount Allison University, 1938

Clarissa Archibald Dennis was born 24 November 1881 in Truro, Nova Scotia. She was the daughter of Senator William Dennis and Agnes (Miller), C.B.E. She was educated at Mount Allison University, Dalhousie University and the Halifax Business College. She subsequently worked for her father at the Halifax Herald until his death in 1920. As a reporter and author, she published numerous newspaper and magazine articles on topics including Nova Scotia history, prominent citizens, and Mi'kmaq folklore and customs. She became one of Nova Scotia's first travel writers as well as one of the first women to explore the province by car. Three books resulted from her travels, including Down in Nova Scotia (1934), More about Nova Scotia (1937), and Cape Breton Over (1942).

Dennis was also involved in a variety of philanthropic work: she was active in the Christian Endeavour Society and the Red Cross; she was a life member of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, the Women’s Local Council of Halifax, and the St. Andrew’s Missionary Society; she was an honorary member of the Dawson Geological Club at Dalhousie University; she was a member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, the Canadian Authors Association, and the Business and Professional Women’s Club. 

In 1938, she was awarded a Doctor of Literature (D.Litt) by Mount Allison University, becoming the first female recipient of an honorary degree from the University. Upon hearing the news, Dennis wrote to University President George J. Trueman to say

"I need not tell you how deeply touched I was on reading your letter, not how greatly I shall appreciate the honor of being the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University of Mount Allison--of which I am an old student. Both my mother and myself are very pleased." [1]

Clara Dennis died in Halifax on 26 February 1958. Many of her photographs are now held in the collections of the Nova Scotia Archives and the Nova Scotia Museum.


[1] Correspondence between George J. Trueman and Clara Dennis. Mount Allison University Archives, Mount Allison University Office of the President, George J. Trueman fonds, 7837/I/197.