Address to Convocation by Dr. Janet Story

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May 26, 2004

Having spent 30 plus years in nursing and the last 20 years collecting anything and everything related to nursing and medicine in this province, it is timely that I have an opportunity to give you some historical background about the careers you have chosen. There are many published history books about medicine, nursing and health services in the province. For example, Grenfell’s work in northern Newfoundland has been well documented by Ron Rompkey, Pat O’Brien and by Grenfell himself. Dr. Noel Murphy published a book about his life as a doctor in a cottage hospital in rural Newfoundland and the biography of Dr. Olds and his work in Twillingate has been published by Gary Saunders. Pat O’Brien also recorded the history of the Waterford Hospital. Joyce Nevitt, the first director of Memorial University School of Nursing documented a history of nursing in Newfoundland some years ago and next month, Jeanette Walsh and Marilyn Beaton, (one of your nursing professors) will publish an oral history of nursing in the province. Today I will touch briefly on some events that are part of the province’s medical and nursing history to give you some idea of the past.

At the beginning of the 20th century, nurses in Newfoundland and Labrador trained in the UK or the U.S. In 1901, Mary Southcott returned to Newfoundland having completed her nursing training at the London Hospital in England. She was appointed superintendent of Nurses at the General Hospital, formerly the Military Hospital, given to the Newfoundland government to replace the St. John’s Hospital located at the site of Victoria park in the west end of St. John’s. Two years later she selected four young women, who could read and write to begin their nursing training. In 1906 these four young women became the first graduates of the General Hospital School of Nursing but more importantly they became the first professional nurses to be educated in Newfoundland. As Superintendent Miss Southcott attempted to improve the conditions for nurses at the General but encountered considerable opposition to her proposed changes and had little success. She resigned in 1916 and opened her own hospital on Monkstown Rd.

She was replaced by Myra Taylor, a General graduate of 1910 who had recently returned from studying midwifery in England. She too attempted to improve conditions for nurses at the General by bringing in an eight-hour day shift instead of the 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. shift, but as this meant hiring 15 more nurses the change was not approved. Myra Taylor spent 20 years as superintendent during what could be considered one of Newfoundland’s darkest periods in history. The country was dealing with the World War One debt, a poor fishery, poverty, disease and political turmoil. As a result Taylor was faced with serious financial restraints. In 1918, the nurses threatened to strike for more pay and they received an increase from $38 to $50/month. Added to this, Taylor’s assistant resigned as did the Matron of the Nurses’ home. Rather than replace the positions, the hospital board increased Miss Taylor’s salary by $25/ month and assigned her their responsibilities in addition to her own duties which included teaching the nursing students. She was given to understand that should the positions be replaced her salary would be reduced by that amount. As you can imagine her workload was onerous. Not surprising, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was away from work for a year.

During the same period, student nurses were paid $4, $6, or $8/month depending upon the year of the nursing program. Due to the financial situation, the hospital board decided not to pay the $4 in first year in the belief that students might be more inclined to stay the additional two years if they could expect to be paid. This decision affected 10 or 11 students and resulted in a savings of approximately $500 year. Salaries of government employees were also being cut but the graduate nurses threatened to resign if their salaries were cut and the hospital board chose to maintain the status quo.

In 1910, four big wards were added to the General; Cowan, Crowdy, Carson and Shea. Nurses’ training was rigorous as the students were expected to scour and scrub the wards, as part of their daily routine, to reduce infection. There were no antibiotics so infections were treated with heat, rest and surgery. Cross infection on the ward was prevented by separating clean and so called “dirty” cases. Nurses working with clean cases were not permitted to enter wards with dirty cases, they were expected to change their uniforms daily and hand washing was so much a part of their daily routine that it was not unusual to end a shift with “raw” hands. Should you be unfortunate enough to have an infection occur on your ward, the Sister was called to Matron’s office to explain why and how it had occurred.

Although anesthesia was introduced in the middle of the 19th century, the first recorded operation in Newfoundland and Labrador was performed by Dr. Henry Shea in 1889 behind a screen on the ward for an ovarian cyst. Prior to this, in 1849 Dr. Samuel Carson, son of William, used chloroform to amputate a finger. It is also recorded that he used chloroform for a women in labour and was arrested and charged with interfering with God’s will as the prevailing belief about labour and delivery was based on the biblical quote “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” The doctor was eventually acquitted.

Social conditions in the province in the 1920s and ‘30s were desperate and infant mortality rate extremely high. These circumstances stimulated some concerned citizens in St. John’s to start the Child Welfare Association in 1917. The governor’s wife, Lady Harris, was president and funds were raised by tag days, bazaars and a government grant. Two nurses were employed to immunize the children and give dietary supplements to needy families in St John’s. This association continued for many years until the service was taken over by the public health nurses. The welfare of children has been a recurring concern in the history of this province and continues today with such problems as the high incidence of childhood obesity.

The plight of people living in the outports was similar to that in St. John’s and moved the Governor’s wife, Lady Alldardyce to set up Cottage Industries around the island similar to those in Scotland, where the women could knit and sell their work. Many of these women were skilled knitters having knit socks, mitts and the like for soldiers in WWI. The organization was known as the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association, better known today as NONIA. Over time, NONIA’s role became one of knitting and weaving and the nursing aspect was taken on by government with the change to Commission Government.

Through NONIA, six nurses were recruited and arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador in the mid 20s. The career of one of these nurses you know well, Myra Bennett, who was honoured by this university for her work in Northern Newfoundland. Another of these nurses, not as well known, was Dorothy Cherry who was posted in Lamaline. She worked tirelessly during the tidal wave in St. Lawrence in 1929 and when an American gentleman heard of her heroism he sent her $350. She bought a car with the money to drive around her district which she previously traveled by horse, sled or on foot. Nurse Cherry had occasion to perform a caesarean section with the priest as the anesthetist. It was either that or the patient would have died. As there was only one cow in the community, when it ran into trouble she operated and saved it.

Until the early to mid 1930s doctors worked mostly in St John’s and the larger centres around the province. The General Hospital had a medical superintendent and several visiting doctors who were paid approximately $100 to treat patients. The hospital superintendent was a surgeon and was always looking for more beds. He had an idea to send people home to convalesce after surgery but it was turned down - 40 years later that same idea was introduced as the provincial Home Care Program.

Under the Commission of government, the Department of Public Health and Welfare introduced the cottage hospital system similar to practices in Scotland. The first one opened in Old Perlican in 1936, others were added around the island over the next 20 years. Each employed a doctor (who was salaried), one to two nurses and several aides who were trained on the job. Some of you may have heard the story of Lucy Harris, one of the first patients treated at the Old Perlican Hospital. Lucy was a child who wandered off while picking blueberries. She was found eight days later, brought to the hospital with frost bitten feet and later transferred to the General for an amputation. Because she had survived so long in the woods, the generally held belief in the community was that Lucy had been carried off by the fairies.

Areas on the island that still did not have doctors were assigned district nurses by government; some of whom were recruited and employed by NONIA. Theses nurses acted as midwives, pulled teeth, sutured wounds, treated illnesses and were seen as pillars of the community. One district nurse described the situation as “the priest was king, I was queen and we ruled” however their reign quickly ended when they fell in love and eloped.

Up until the 1940s, doctors and nurses were the primary providers of health care in Newfoundland. Dentists were few. It was not until the 1950s that the Canadian Red Cross provided a dentist and his wife with a mobile office which they used to serve the Northern Peninsula.

This year the Association of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador. celebrates 50 years since it was formed and became a member of the Canadian Nurse Association. One of its founding members and its first elected president was Elizabeth Summers, a faculty member at Memorial University School of Nursing and another nurse honoured by this university. The ARNNL grew from the Newfoundland Graduate Nurses Association started by Mary Southcott in 1916. This association tried to set standards for nursing but it was not until government passed the Nurses Act in 1953 that nursing was given that authority. The first responsibilities passed over to ARNNL was setting the RN exams and registration of nurses for an initial registration fee of $12. A Board of Examiners was set up and committees appointed to deal with various aspects of running the association.

With Confederation, increased numbers of Newfoundland nurses pursued studies at mainland universities. Through their contact with nurses from other provinces, we learned new practices and ideas. Canadian nurses were taught in universities and as we were part of Canada, university education for Newfoundland nurses became an issue. Talks between MUN and ARNNL about the establishment of a school of nursing began in the 1960s. MUN’s response was positive and in 1967 the school opened with Joyce Nevitt as director. MUN School of Nursing worked with the provincial diploma schools and designed courses for faculty to develop their teaching skills. Today the university school is a leader in nursing education both in the province and in the country.

In 1982, at a Canada Nurses Association Meeting in St. John’s, nurses decided that the entry requirement for nursing would be a BN. The five provincial schools of nursing began work toward achieving that goal and with the approval of MUN Senate, Newfoundland and Labrador became one of the first provinces in Canada to achieve BN by the year 2000. This change marked a new phase of nursing education and ended almost 100 years of diploma nursing education in the province.

In the early days of health care, there was the Department of Health and Welfare, doctors, nurses and welfare officers to provide relief to the people. Today we also have physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, speech therapists, and a variety of other groups to deal with patients’ needs. But the area still most neglected is the prevention of illness as was evident with the recent SARS outbreak in Canada. Health education began in Newfoundland in the 1930s with a special department established by the Department of Health. And yet while much is new in health care today, conditions such as diabetes and obesity continue to be major health problems in this province and throughout the country. As you enter the medical field hopefully you will be in a position to reduce the incidence of these and other similar health problems.

I have outlined for you some aspects of the nursing and medical history of Newfoundland and Labrador much of which is currently preserved and added to on an ongoing basis at the Lillian Stevenson Nursing Archives/Museum. To my knowledge this is only archives of its kind in Canada. Throughout our history, there have been the same problems you hear about today; shortage of money, shortage of doctors and nurses, particularly in the rural areas and yet great strides have been despite these obstacles. They did not prevent your predecessors from providing the best care they could, it only motivated them to a greater commitment to serve the people of the province. I have no doubt that each of you will do the same.

Finally you now join the thousands of Memorial University graduates who have followed the words of the Memorial University crest Provehito in Altum which translated , means launch forth into the deep, or as one aspiring classics student translated it, jump in at the deep end.

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