When Maysie Parsons of Harbour Grace graduated from the General Hospital School of Nursing in St. John’s in 1914, young men from her hometown were already leaving for Europe to fight in the First World War.
The new nurse decided right away she would sign up to serve in the Canadian military, too. According to a 1915 Evening Telegram article, Ms. Parsons’ General Hospital colleagues presented her with a watch inscribed with “in recognition of the noble work she has undertaken.”
Ms. Parsons, who later rose to the rank of Lieut. Parsons, became the first Newfoundland-educated nurse to join the war effort.
On a quest
Lieut. Parsons’ story is just one of many that School of Nursing professors Drs. Sandra MacDonald and April Manuel, along with their research assistant and new nursing graduate Jennifer Guy, uncovered in their quest to learn about the war contributions of nurses born and educated in Newfoundland.
Their research was prompted by Memorial University’s status as a living memorial and was supported by the WW100 Living Memorial Commemoration Fund.
“We found a group of heroic nurses,” said Dr. MacDonald. “I’m not a historian, but as we got deeper into this I really felt that these women were unsung heroines, these were lost stories, stories that the public should hear, too.”
At the Centre for Newfoundland Studies in Memorial’s Queen Elizabeth II Library, the women found the names of 12 General Hospital graduates who served in both the Canadian and British militaries in a master’s thesis about the hospital’s School of Nursing. The thesis happened to be written by Linda White, an archivist with Archives and Special Collections at the library, who is a former nurse.
Visits to archives, libraries and communities, as well as meeting with families and chasing down leads also helped to shine a light on the contributions of Newfoundland’s wartime nurses.
Most of the women were posted to England and France, but Lieut. Parsons and Sister Frances Cron―nurses with the British military were known as sisters―also served at stationary hospitals in locations such as Salonkia, Greece. Conditions were often far from tolerable: mud, flooding, rats and influenza were common.
“In letters home to their families the nurses would acknowledge that conditions were terrible, but then they’d comment on the smile of a soldier.”
General Hospital-prepared nurses trained in what was once called fever nursing; it was knowledge considered invaluable for treating soldiers who fought, lived and died in the damp and muddy trenches of First World War battlefields.
“A lot of the nurses with experience in fever nursing were taken near the front and worked in very difficult conditions,” said Dr. MacDonald. “They had to deal with horrific gunshot and bayonet wounds, and all the soldiers had trench foot because of wet and gruesome conditions. In letters home to their families the nurses would acknowledge that conditions were terrible, but then they’d comment on the smile of a soldier.”
Lieut. Parsons wrote to her mother about some of her hospital experiences, where, “Guards were on duty every 50 yards along the beach,” and there were “terrible wounds, quite a lot of amputations, eye cases and fractured skulls.”
Sister Grace Gardener of Trinity, stationed at Salisbury Plains in England, Egypt and Palestine, nursed soldiers in mobile hospitals at the front, and along the way contracted malaria, a disease that plagued her for many years.
“There were moments when I was doing research I’d say, ‘Wow, she’s a really brave woman and I like her.’
“After the war a lot of nurses stayed on to care for soldiers who were still in hospital,” said Ms. Guy, who thinks that so little is known about the women’s contributions because nursing was just a part of what they did, and “they didn’t want to toot their own horns.”
“Their stories are inspiring in so many ways,” said Ms. Guy, who is looking forward to her new career, especially with all that she has discovered. “There were moments when I was doing research I’d say, ‘Wow, she’s a really brave woman and I like her.’
“By doing this research I’ve gained a much broader perspective, and I hope that something like this can help educate students about where we’ve come from.”
Author’s note: The first Newfoundland nurse known to have volunteered in the Great War, Martha Isabel Loder, completed her nursing education in London Hospital and arrived in France on Nov. 5, 1914, about six months ahead of Ms. Parsons. You can read about Martha in the Winter 2015/16 and Spring 2016 issues of the Newfoundland Quarterly.