Local history: Dr. Florence Murray

Dr. Florence Murray

Facing sexism and war, the Halifax doctor travelled around the globe and never stopped helping people

A local newspaper announced Dr. Florence Murray’s return to Halifax in August 1942 under the headline ”Nova Scotians Returning from Japan Territories, Arrive at Montreal.” Below the headline was the news, “Dr. Murray is returning to her home near Bedford, a Halifax suburb where her father, Reverend Robert Murray lived.”

Florence was born in Pictou Landing in 1894, with little to suggest that her travels would someday be the stuff of newspaper headlines, although she was a noted nonconformist. One of her early ambitions was to be a minister, a goal abandoned when an official told her the Presbyterian Church would not accept women ministers.

Undaunted, she then decided—in an era when women doctors were rare and often treated disrespectfully—to enter Dalhousie University’s medical school, the only woman to graduate in the class of 1914. In her fourth year of studies, the Halifax Explosion hit, and she was among the medical students providing life-saving care to victims.

Also around that time, another experience deeply inspired her. She heard a medical missionary talk about her experiences working in Korea. She decided to follow the same path, and and with the Canadian Presbyterian Church’s support, went to Korea where she spent a year learning the language. When her studies were completed, she was sent first to a mission station in Manchuria.

There she found a horrifying patient load of 22,000 people, including young girls many rejected by their families, without even being named.     

After a few years trying, and often succeeding, to make a difference there, she was posted back in Korea, this time at Hamheung. She worked in a badly neglected hospital where lights would fail during an operation, where there was little clean water, bedlinens were rarely (if ever) changed, and human waste was casually dumped on the ground outside. 

She wouldn’t tolerate such conditions and during the years, that followed she orchestrated major improvements at this hospital.

Slowly, she implemented enormous changes to the hospital’s dreadful environment. Under her leadership, it was transformed into 100-bed facility where qualified Korean doctors and nurses trained by registered nurses were on staff.

The Second World War was raging, and Canada was a member of the Allies, her native country at war with Imperial Japan, which occupied Korea. Murray and her mission staff were put under house arrest, although she and the nurses were allowed to go to the hospital.

In May 1942, she and a number of Canadians and Americans were exchanged for Japanese prisoners. But not before enduring two harrowing weeks imprisoned in a tiny room with 12 other people, subsisting on a small died of raw fish and cabbage.

In August, along with 1,500 prisoners heading for freedom, she boarded the Swedish liner Gripsholm, bound for New York. She remained in Nova Scotia for the rest of the war but, in 1947, returned to Korea to serve as the associate dean of a women’s medical school.

But just three years later, conflict drove her out again, this time fleeing the Korean War.  

The country’s pull remained though, and she soon returned aboard the Danish Red Cross hospital ship the Jutlandia, which was providing assistance to the UN and humanitarian support to the allied forces. She had found 400 wounded soldiers being cared for on the ship, but none of the medical or nursing staff could speak Korean. Fluent in the language, she acted as an interpreter and played a huge role in the care of the injured.        

In 1956, she came home on leave to Nova Scotia where Pine Hill Divinity College feted her with a doctor of divinity degree. She was the first woman and the first non-minister to receive the honour. Around this time, Dalhousie University also granted her with a doctor of laws degree. On its citation, she was described as “One of the great women of the world.”

Her work was also remembered in South Korea, where the president awarded her the Order of Civil Merit in 1974. At the age of 80, she made a final journey to the country, visiting old friends and comrades. The following year, she passed away at home in Halifax.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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