Local history: Saving lives and creating opportunities

Margaret MacDonald. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

In the inferno of the First World War, a Nova Scotian woman transformed nursing and helped women break into the military

Born in 1873 in Bailey’s Brook, Pictou County, Margaret MacDonald was the youngest of nine children. Her family ran the village’s general store, the only local source of farming supplies and imported goods, and was relatively prosperous. This, combined with her mother’s passion for ensure her children were well educated (rare for girls in that era), gave MacDonald unique opportunities early in her life.

After her primary education at Stella Maris Convent School in Pictou, MacDonald went on to follow her older sisters to Mount St. Vincent (forerunner of the eponymous university) in Halifax in 1890, which was then a Sisters of Charity convent school. 

She studied nursing and, against her parents’ wishes, she went on to study nursing at Charity Hospital Training School in New York. After graduating in 1895, Margaret MacDonald went to Panama to work as a nurse during the construction of the Panama Canal. While there, she survived a bout of malaria and moved into military nursing, where her career blossomed.

She served aboard an American hospital ship during the Spanish–American War in 1898, and then headed to South Africa to join British forces fighting the Boer War. In 1900, she became one of the first women in the Empire to earn a military commission.

After that, she returned to Canada and soon became head of the Army Medical Corps. She was in charge of the admission process and sought to maintain high professional standards. Many Canadian nurses learned on the job in those days, but she wouldn’t accept candidates without professional training. Men dominated the military, but her high standards and rigour soon earned her a reputation as a leader in her field. 

MacDonald moved to the U.K. to learn about the country’s renowned military nursing program, then then the First World War ignited, and transformed her career as she became focused on leadership and building an effective team. 

Amidst the war’s tumult, she saw the opportunity to make a huge change for the women and chip away at the era’s harsh gender roles. She made a huge step toward her goal in 1914, becoming matron-in-chief of a group that would eventually comprise about 3,000 nurses. 

The first woman in the British Empire to earn the title, she was also responsible for the safety and welfare of her nurses, arranging their transportation, security, accommodations, and health care. It was hard, but MacDonald’s experience and leadership skills served her well. While illness claimed some of her nurses, the vast majority made it through the war, performing nobly.

And when those nurses came home, many found that their service now gave them the skills and experience to pursue new opportunities — a key step in the dramatic 20th-century shift in the role of women in Canada.

Margaret returned to Canada in 1919. Here she aided in reorganizing The Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp, which was the new title of The Canadian Medical Corps, of which she was the head. 

Exhausted from her gruelling service, MacDonald retired in 1920 at age 51, and returned to Bailey’s Brook, where she died on September 7, 1948, at the age of 75.

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