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Sister Heroines: The Roseate Glow of Wartime Nursing, 1914-1918 (review)

From: The Canadian Historical Review
Volume 85, Number 1, March 2004
pp. 187-189 | 10.1353/can.2004.0051

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The Canadian Historical Review 85.1 (2004) 187-189

Sister Heroines: The Roseate Glow of Wartime Nursing, 1914-1918. Marjorie Barron Norris. Calgary: Bunker to Bunker Publishing 2002. Pp. viii, 224, illus. $22.95

Jessie Barron, like other military nurses, was reticent to speak about or document her wartime experiences. But her daughter, author Marjorie Barron Norris, became intrigued with her mother's wartime mementos as well as the experiences of other women from Calgary who served during the First World War. As the author notes, however, there is a dearth of relevant primary sources: 'It was as if she never served - but there was official proof.'

In addition to Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) war diaries and records of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), Norris uses a range of sources to fill gaps in existing evidence about these women: a collection of letters exchanged between a CEF officer and his wife; two published memoirs by trained nurses from eastern Canada; memoirs of a British Voluntary Aid Detachment; published histories of several Canadian General Hospital units; and local newspaper accounts related to women who either served or tried to serve overseas in some capacity. Sister Heroines includes accounts for at least thirty-two women. Some of the accounts are very brief; some are very loosely associated with Calgary; and some concern women without formal training as nurses. Thus the book offers a range of women's experiences related to wartime opportunities. It highlights many issues associated with the turn-of-the-century professionalization movement within nursing, as well as issues associated with women's desires for patriotism, adventure, and service opportunities in general.

Norris seeks to address a gap in military nursing historiography by recovering the experiences of nurses associated with Calgary - whether they were born, trained, or simply worked there at some point during their lives. The book requires careful reading to discern which women were actually military nurses, since the CAMC required their nurses to be graduates of recognized schools of nursing. Careful reading is also necessary to determine which experiences pertain to women from Calgary and which pertain to other Canadian regions.

Sister Heroines is organized loosely into nine chapters around a general theme of 'unsung heroines.' It intersperses material from the larger historiography on military nursing with relatively brief biographical sketches of local women. The first chapter suggests that there was a high level of militarism already present in pre-war Calgary. It raises several contentious but unanswered issues: Who was considered to be a nurse, who was eligible for enlistment, and why relatively few nurses from the city became military nurses? Chapter 2 illustrates a range of motivations and strategies used by women to get overseas during the war, primarily through the example of one wife who accompanied her officer husband. Chapter 3 summarizes general knowledge related to the CAMC military nurses, known by rank as nursing sisters. Chapter 4 focuses on 'nurse heroines' through selected portions from previously published memoirs of Nursing Sisters Mabel Clint and Katherine Simmie-Wilson, who were born and trained in eastern Canada. Chapter 5 provides an interesting description of the origins of Alberta's first Red Cross military convalescent hospital and the Colonel Belcher Hospital. Here the reader catches a glimpse of military nursing within home settings. Chapter 6 illustrates the social and romantic sides of war through the letters and diary of a nursing sister who married a medical officer, resigned her commission, and then struggled to support herself overseas - eventually becoming pregnant and returning to Canada.

In chapter 7 Norris considers danger during wartime service, although it is difficult to link this section to women from Calgary because they were not among those who died. She documents a variety of ways in which military nurses were commemorated, however, contributing important information for further research and raising additional unanswered questions. Chapter 8 raises issues related to regionality and why so few Calgary women served during the war, although she does not suggest possible explanations. Norris's final chapter concerns her mother's experiences...