How One Toronto Woman Changed the Way Canadians View Nursing
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How One Toronto Woman Changed the Way Canadians View Nursing

Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.

A public health nurse visits a school in 1914. From the Toronto Archives 	Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 11, Item 110.

A public health nurse visits a school in 1914. From the Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 11, Item 110.

The devastating Spanish influenza outbreak was surely still fresh in people’s minds when Edith Kathleen Russell decided that nurses needed to be better trained. The 1918 flu pandemic killed millions worldwide, beginning just a few months before the end of World War I and lasting well after it ended. The flu was still making people sick in Canada until the mid-1920s. If their importance on the battlefields of WWI wasn’t enough, nurses proved their value during the Spanish flu pandemic.

Russell was a new nurse in 1918, freshly graduated from Toronto General Hospital School of Nursing. Only two years later, she was the first director of the University of Toronto’s Department of Public Health Nursing, launching her lifelong quest to improve training for public health nurses in Canada.

In a 1921 article published in The Public Health Journal, Russell expressed concern about what she saw as a brain drain of Canadian nurses, who would study in the U.S. and remain there to work. She argued that those who wanted to be public health nurses—which she defined as a nurse with a good bedside manner who considered themselves a health care professional and a teacher—need special training. She wrote:

Pending any better arrangement, it has been agreed, at least in this country, that a hospital training is the best preliminary teaching for this public health nurse, but it is just as fervently agreed that a hospital training alone does not fit a nurse for this special field of work.

Russell said that through the advocacy of nurses who wanted to be trained and work domestically, not in the U.S.—where there were schools for public health nurses—some schools were established in Canada, including the one at U of T where she was director. At the time, the character of Sarah Gamp in Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit represented the worst characteristics of nurses: that they could be drunk, untrained, and sloppy. Russell wanted to overturn that stereotype and work to make nursing more professional than domestic work. She addressed this at the end of her article, writing:

We have had under-education in the nursing profession and it produced Sairey-Gamps; let us try over-education, that bogey of the highly imaginative, and see if the results will really be as dire as some pessimists suggest.

A nurse bandages a young girl's finger in 1923. From the Toronto Archives  Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 686.

A nurse bandages a young girl’s finger in 1923. From the Toronto Archives Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 686.

To ensure her nurses were as educated as she wanted, Russell led the first university-based nursing program in Canada. In 1928, her department became part of the School of Hygiene and in 1933, an independent school, now the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing. In 1949, Russell was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal by the Red Cross Society, the highest international honour for nurses, in recognition of her work in education. She also worked with the Canadian Red Cross society as an honourary nursing advisor from 1942 to 1952.

Because of her expertise in nursing education, Russell reviewed the state of nursing schools in New Brunswick in 1956 for a report published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. In it, she argued that nurses need better specific training for mental health care and notes that many nurses don’t work inside homes anymore and only hospitals can afford to pay them. She also said, “with quiet irony,” according to the Journal of Public Health, that during WWII the government paid to fund nursing schools, but she asks readers to”consider how long and how earnestly the regular schools of nursing had sought public support and been unable to obtain it.”

According to her 1964 obituary in the Globe and Mail, Russell also studied Saskatchewan’s Centralized Teaching Program for nurses and Red Cross home care. She held two honourary doctorates, one from the University of King’s College and one from U of T, and honourary memberships to the Canadian Nurses Association and the Victorian Order of Nurses.

In honour of International Nurses Day and National Nursing Week, drop by Russell’s plaque at Faculty of Nursing the University of Toronto and thank her for well-educated and professional nursing in Canada.

Russell's plaque at the Faculty of Nursing. Photo from Dave Ross/University of Toronto.

Russell’s plaque at the Faculty of Nursing. Photo from Dave Ross/University of Toronto.


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