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Joyce Nevitt: Founding Director's Archive


Joyce Nevitt

The Memorial University School of Nursing opened in September, 1966, under the directorship of Joyce Nevitt. Opening a new school and developing a new program is a task that requires a very particular type of person: determined, self-reliant, and motivated. Nevitt was all of this and more, she had the willingness and the ability to tackle challenges head-on, and above all else she valued education. These characteristics enabled her to successfully develop the School of Nursing at Memorial in its earliest and most trying days. Despite a car accident that forced her absence from the school for nearly a year and left her with affected mobility, and partial deafness due to a childhood illness, no impairment truly hindered her commitment to nursing education. This contribution and dedication has made Nevitt an important figure both in the history of Memorial University but also of the history of nursing in Newfoundland.

Joyce M. Nevitt was born in Cranbrook, Kent, England, on 16 November 19161. The youngest child of what she herself referred as a “United Nations family”, Nevitt had an international family background. Her paternal grandfather was born in Savannah, Georgia and his wife was Irish. Her maternal grandfather was from a Scottish family, but was born in New York. Her father, Reverend Robert Barrington Nevitt was born on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Her mother, a lace maker named Selma Melville, was born in Jamaica where her father was employed as a banker2. While Nevitt was born in England, she also lived in Canada, the United States, and Jamaica. Nevitt spent her early childhood in Jamaica until she was ten, when her father died. Mrs. Nevitt was left to take care of her children alone. Nevitt’s brothers were sent to live with relatives in North America, while she and her sisters were sent to an orphanage in England. Mrs. Nevitt went to Paris in an attempt to improve her trade skills, but died of spinal meningitis. Unfortunately for the sisters the orphanage they were in was a place of hard chores and little schooling, which may well have influenced her life-long drive for education and achievement. After a few years the sisters were contacted by their brothers, and went to live with an aunt and uncle, who were able to provide Nevitt with not only a better home life, but education as well3.

Once away from the stressful environment of the orphanage Nevitt flourished in her studies, and became interested in the medical field. Before she entered her nursing studies, she took an extended trip to Austria and Hungary with some extended family members. Nevitt was in Vienna the year that Hitler invaded, and witnessed the dangerous changes that were underway4. Upon returning from her Hungarian travels, Nevitt enrolled at Fulham Hospital in London as a student nurse5. She was accepted into the program despite the fact that she did not have the prerequisite diploma, and she graduated near the top of her class6. The Second World War coincided with her time as a student nurse, 1939 to 1943, and Nevitt experienced air raids and bombings, and treated air force pilots7. She then worked at the Royal National Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital until 19468. When the Second World War ended, Nevitt was eager to travel and see her family in North America again. On June 1 1946 she flew from London to New York, and decided to move to Hamilton where her brother and his wife lived9. Though she was initially going to study obstetrics at the University of Toronto, Nevitt enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B. Sc. N) at McMaster and was one of the first graduates in the program10.

After graduating from McMaster in 1949 Nevitt sought new challenges and opportunities, never appearing to want to remain in standard hospital work. She began a long career of nursing and nursing education and administration in Canada and the United States. She worked as an ENT instructor and Head Nurse at Toronto Western Hospital, and then as a private nurse. It was around this time that Nevitt’s life-long interest in Public Health really developed, and she received certificates in Public Health Nursing that qualified her for positions such as public health nurse in the Halton County Health Unit in the early 1950s. In 1956 Nevitt was instrumental in establishing a rural health service outside Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a feat of which she was very proud11.

Along with Public Health, striving for higher education remained a priority for Nevitt. Throughout the late 1950s and into the early 1960s she furthered her own education, and developed teaching and administrative skills. Nevitt took summer courses at Harvard, and completed both Teacher’s College and an MA at Columbia. She also started a doctoral program. Simultaneously, Nevitt was a lecturer in Public Health at the University of Western Ontario from 1958 to 1962. In 1963 she moved to Michigan and was hired at Wayne State University again as a lecturer in Public Health. She retained this position until 1965, when she left in order to accept the position of founding Director of the newly created Memorial University of Newfoundland School of Nursing12.

When Memorial decided to open a School of Nursing, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Dean of Arts and Science, which in the early 1960s was M.O. Morgan. Nevitt was recommended to Morgan as a candidate for the position of Director by Ms. Edith McDowell, presumably because Ms. McDowell was familiar with Nevitt’s qualifications in teaching and administration of nursing as well as her drive for education13. Nevitt came to St. John’s for the first time in May of 1965 to meet with university representatives, and after some correspondence and more visits she was officially offered the job of Director of the School of Nursing. Her two-year contract at Wayne State was almost finished, and ever-ready for new challenges and new opportunities, Nevitt accepted the position.

Nevitt in late 1960’s

Nevitt’s contract began on 1 August 1965, and she was faced with the challenge of almost single-handedly developing the curriculum and philosophy of the school. She also worked diligently to find faculty and arrange outside agency placements in time for the school to open in September 196614. Much of this initial set up done by Nevitt was done from her home, as she was without her own office space for a period of time15. Throughout this Nevitt retained a lot of control over how the School of Nursing was going to be shaped. She took it upon herself to design the uniform, caps and pins that the students would wear. However, her initial uniform proved to be unsuited for both the Newfoundland climate as well as the temperature in the hospitals16. The uniform was changed to something more practical, and the first class of students was allowed to select the cap of their choice (they selected the Nevitt design)17.

During this time, Nevitt was asked, and agreed, to teach evening classes to Registered Nurses (RN) in Administration and Methods of Nursing, and Teaching of Nursing18. The existing nursing community in Newfoundland was apprehensive about the degree program, and there were worries that university trained nurses would be taking away jobs from the hospital school nurses19. There was also a debate between the existing nursing community and Nevitt as to what the new degree should be called: Bachelor of Nursing (BN) or the science-focused B. Sc. N20. Eventually, Nevitt’s preference and the national trend, BN, was chosen.

Nevitt was keen on having well-rounded nursing students, and developed a curriculum that included English, a second language, psychology and lab and hospital components. The program was adjusted early on from four to five years to allow the students to get a firmer grasp of scientific course work, as many of them were admitted immediately after high school21. When the first full class graduated with BNs in 1971, the MUN School of Nursing had grown from having Nevitt as its director and first faculty member to a full program with an expanded faculty and a greater number of students. In an interview in 1989 Nevitt acknowledged her own contribution in the keeping the program afloat and progressive as the School of Nursing’s first Director, stating that “As the school’s first director, I laid groundwork that would make it extremely difficult to introduce any kind of change that would take us backward.22

Nevitt’s retirement

When Nevitt stepped down from her position as Director in 1973 she had persevered through the challenge of setting up the School of Nursing at MUN, and the pressure of being an outsider in a well-established nursing community. She continued her interest in education, of nurses, nursing students, and her own. After her term as Director she remained as a faculty member, continuing to teach after a year’s sabbatical in 1973-1974. During this sabbatical Nevitt did a lot of research on her book White Caps and Black Bands: A History of Nursing in Newfoundland to 1934 (published in 1978), and took correspondence law courses from the University of Chicago, but did not complete her doctoral program due to a lack of funding23. She officially retired in 1982, but gave an annual lecture in the History of Nursing for many years afterwards24.

“Retirement” only indicated withdrawal from primary paid employment. As she had expected well-rounded students, Nevitt pursued many interests throughout her life. In retirement she had even more time to dedicate to those causes, hobbies and passions. She had been part of the Association for Registered Nurses in Newfoundland (ARNN) and had served as president as well as various other positions. She was also on committees for and volunteered with the aged, hearing impaired, people with learning disabilities and the disabled, Memorial University Senate Committees and women’s organization in Newfoundland and Ontario. Nevitt was also a member of the Newfoundland Historical Society, and a supporter of Fishermen’s Museums. She was also an active participant in her church choir and drama club25. She went on to publish another book in 1985, a history of her Anglican parish, St. Michaels and All Angels. In her spare time, Nevitt had many other hobbies and interests, including photography, painting, embroidering and knitting as well as playing the piano and mouth organ26.

Nevitt speaking at 25th

In 1985 Nevitt was recognized for her work with the Community Service Council Volunteer Centre. From this, she was selected to be a special observer for Canada at the United Nations’ 40th anniversary delegation in New York27. There Nevitt attended sessions on social and humanitarian issues, and was invited to contribute on the subject of aging in Canada28. Nevitt’s long time commitment to volunteering her time to help others also landed her national recognition in 1988 when she was awarded the Canada Volunteer Award in Ottawa29. Other accolades she received include having her portrait unveiled at the School of Nursing in 1982, being listed in international bibliographies, being honored among McMaster Alumni as one of the first five graduates in the B. Sc. N program and having a room in her name in the Memorial University School of Nursing presented to her at its 25th Anniversary in 1991.

Joyce Nevitt died of heart disease in St. John’s on 10 November 199830. She was just shy of her 82nd birthday. A Requiem Eucharist memorial service was held at her church, St. Michaels and All Angels31. In 1999 the provincial government of Newfoundland announced the Joyce M. Nevitt Memorial Scholarship, to be awarded to a nurse engaged in post-graduate gerontological studies32. Her name will always be associated with the initiation of the MUN School of Nursing, a fact of which she was well aware. Nevitt understood that the challenges she faced as founding Director were part of the territory, saying “Pioneering is always fraught with misunderstanding, misinterpretation and suspicion.”33 Though at times controversial, Nevitt’s contribution to the Memorial University School of Nursing is a testament to her dedication to furthering her chosen profession. She never married, and always placed nursing and her students as a high priority. Nevitt brought her international experience to the Memorial University School of Nursing, as she had trained and worked in England, the United States and Ontario. Her interest in history, law and philosophy brought additional depth to her approach to nursing, and her tireless work for public health and volunteering add to her multidimensional career as a nurse, administrator and educator.