Nursing Sisters of the Canadian Army Medical Corps in the First World War, Part I

By Laura Brown

Forty-one-year-old Alice Isaacson had accomplished a lot by the time she joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in 1916. The Irish-born, American-trained nurse had eight years of nursing supervisor experience under her belt, as well as a year of service with the 23rd General Hospital of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Étaples, France. A reference letter penned by a Medical Officer, likely in support of her transfer from the BEF to the CEF, described her as “skillful, energetic and reliable” and as an individual who was undaunted by large tasks. On one occasion she was responsible for looking after 120 seriously ill patients with little assistance. One of the few things she had not yet learned to do was ride a bicycle, but this, too, would be tackled with determination before her return home at the end of the war.

Alice kept several diaries during her service overseas, which included postings in France at the No. 2 Canadian General Hospital at Le Tréport and the No. 6 Canadian General Hospital at Troyes. Her writings and an insightful photo album are now part of her fonds held at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). These records, as well as other private and government collections, such as the Department of National Defence fonds, are some of the examples of the valuable archival resources at LAC that document the history of women’s service in Canada’s military.

A black-and-white photograph of uniformed men and women riding bicycles. The women are dressed in light-coloured uniforms with dark belts and hats, while the men wear khaki uniforms with hats. They pedal along a pathway that is bordered on the left by a tall brick wall. A large building with windowed façades is prominent in the background. The caption, “Cycle Parade” is written on the lower half of the image.

Personnel riding bicycles, No. 6 Canadian General Hospital, Troyes, France, June 2, 1917. Photograph Album of Alice E. Isaacson, R11203-01-E (e002283123)

Only a few nurses were part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps at the start of the First World War in 1914, but numbers soon increased as civilian nurses were eager to transfer their skills into the military context. In total, more than 3,000 nurses served in the CAMC, including 2,504 overseas in England, France, and at Gallipoli, Alexandria and Salonika in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Nursing was the only means by which women were permitted to serve in the Canadian military during the First World War. To enlist, nurses had to be single, British subjects (which included Canadians at the time), in good health, between the ages of 21 and 38, and have qualifications from a recognized nursing school. If accepted, recruits were commissioned as officers with the rank of lieutenant, which is notable as Canada was the only country in the world to rate nurses as officers at the time. Canadian nurses were addressed with the traditional title of “Nursing Sister”, and enjoyed a number of benefits in their positions, including good wages and leave. The head nursing sister, known as the Matron-in-Chief, was in charge of all the nurses in the service. Margaret Macdonald of the CAMC was given this title, and was the first woman to hold the rank of major in the whole of the British Empire.

A black-and-white photograph shows nursing sisters dressed in white aprons and veils, attending to a crowd of male patients inside a tent. One of the nursing sisters is sitting on a chair, with her feet and hands folded, staring at the camera. The other two nursing sisters are standing as they bandage the wounds of soldiers. The patients are dressed in casual clothing and some are in uniform. Medical supplies including bandages and pails are seen in the foreground and mid-ground.

Nursing sisters attending to soldiers in a dressing tent at No. 7 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples, France, ca. 1917. W.L. Kidd Collection (e002712847)

Military nurses faced a multitude of new experiences that contrasted to their work in the civilian context, whether it was sleeping in a tent, shifting to a new posting at short notice, or making do with limited supplies. Improvising and adapting to changing circumstances was necessary, as nurses might face quiet wards with a few patients one day, and masses of incoming and outgoing patients the next. These women saw first-hand the bodily harm caused by the era’s modern warfare, including shrapnel and poison gas, and witnessed a loss of life that few could have predicted when they first enlisted.

Nurses were not permitted to serve in trenches and most were posted well back from the front lines, working in general or convalescent hospitals. However, some were tasked closer to enemy action. Alice Isaacson noted the coveted nursing positions at casualty clearing stations (advance units along the evacuation routes between front lines and hospitals) in her diary, while posted at No. 2 Canadian General Hospital in September 1917: “Such an exciting afternoon today! . . . Sisters Jean Johnston, S.P. Johnson and Riddle are to go to CCS tomorrow morning! Sisters Hally and Villeneuve are heartbroken at being left here – But we are all glad these sisters have their chance for CCS at last.”

A black-and-white photograph showing three people sitting on the steps of a wooden hut. Two men, wearing trousers with rolled up legs and casual shirts, sit on either side of a uniformed nurse. All are smiling at the camera.

Nursing Sister Lillias Morden with patients outside of a medical hut at No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, Le Tréport, France, 1917. Photograph Album of Alice E. Isaacson, R11203-01-E. (e007150684)

Nurses made significant contributions to the war effort in their care of ill and injured soldiers, a duty that extended after the armistice on November 11, 1918. The “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic that began at the end of the war and spread through military camps placed further demands on nurses. Close to 1,500 nursing sisters were still serving with the CAMC by mid-1919. Lillias Morden, a nurse from Hamilton, Ontario, was one of them. She joined the CAMC in 1916, served in England and France, and assisted with demobilization efforts at the end of the war. Morden did not leave her military position until November 1920.

While nurses such as Alice Isaacson and Lillias Morden made it home after the First World War ended, some nursing sisters were not as fortunate. Part II of this blog post will explore how the conditions under which nursing sisters served could be dangerous, with some paying the ultimate price.

Related resources

In April 2018, Library and Archives Canada launched Co-Lab, a new collaboration tool, for the public to contribute by transcribing, tagging and interacting with historical records. Now we are adding a new challenge: showcasing the personal files of some of Canada’s nursing sisters who served in the First World War. You can get started right away!


Laura Brown is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division.

Beating hearts: John Alexander Hopps and the pacemaker

By Rebecca Meunier

Quick! Think of five inventions that have revolutionized the way we live.

Now try to think of five Canadian medical inventions. Not so easy, is it?

Why is it that most of us are able to think of five inventions that have helped to shape the world we live in, such as the wheel, but struggle to name even two Canadian medical inventions?

Though we might have the impression that countries such as the United States or England have the upper hand when it comes to the total number of medical inventions, we must not forget that Canada has long been a leader in the advancement of healthcare across the world. Some Canadian inventions include the discovery of insulin by Sir Frederick Banting; the invention of Pablum, an enriched infant cereal; and cobalt therapy.

There is one Canadian medical invention, however, that outshines all others. It has the power to make your heart beat steadily when you exercise and even when you are in love. That invention is the artificial pacemaker. Canadian electrical engineer John Alexander Hopps is credited with the invention of the artificial pacemaker (also known as the stimulator-defibrillator), and it is through Hopps’s work with Dr. Wilfred Bigelow and Dr. John Callaghan that the device first began to save lives.

A black-and-white photograph of an operating room scene with four men in surgical gowns and masks gathered around a prone patient who is hidden from view.

Dr. John Hopps in the background overlooking an operation in an operating theater, undated (MIKAN 3588818)

John Alexander Hopps was born in Winnipeg on May 21, 1919. He graduated in 1941 from the University of Manitoba, where he had studied electrical engineering. He then worked at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa on wartime radar development. In 1949 he was assigned to work in Toronto with Dr. Bigelow, who had recently discovered that there was a reduced risk of complications if, before an open-heart surgery, the patient was kept in a state of hypothermia. His work with Dr. Bigelow and Dr. Callaghan led to the development of the cardiac pacemaker in the 1950’s—a device that, though he did not know it at the time, would help prolong his own life. From 1957 until 1958 Hopps worked in Sri Lanka, helping to establish the first colonial engineering unit in Southeast Asia. Fifteen years later, in 1973, he became the head of the NRC’s new Medical Engineering Section. He continued to work on new medical innovations and became a leading voice for the importance of hospital safety standards. He was especially concerned with the protective measures taken by hospitals to reduce the risk of operating room electric shock hazards.

Hopps’s unique knowledge of technology and medicine brought him into contact with all kinds of challenges relating to technology and human health. He even wrote a research paper detailing his findings on the potential health hazards of a microwave oven used by the staff at the Riverside Hospital, concluding that there were no significant harmful effects associated with its use.

Hopps also became the first president of the Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society, and in this role continued to promote the use of engineering in the medical world.

The pacemaker that we know today looks very different from its predecessor. The world’s first pacemaker was about the size of a microwave oven and had to be placed outside the body. Over the years, countless doctors and inventors helped to shrink the size of the pacemaker so that it was eventually small enough to be placed inside the human body during a less invasive surgery.

A black-and-white photograph of a small machine with various knobs and dials. Two black wands are connected to the machine by a cord.

Operating room model of the stimulator-defibrillator (MIKAN 4997380)

The pacemaker became quickly invaluable to doctors and was included in mobile cardiac units.

A black-and-white photograph of a man wearing a lab coat, surgical mask and surgical cap. He is looking at his watch and standing next to a large machine with many drawers, knobs and wires. The machine has a sign on it that reads Mobile Cardiac Resuscitator.

Mobile Cardiac Resuscitator (MIKAN 4982761)

Black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing glasses and a bowtie.

John A. Hopps, circa 1945 (MIKAN 4997379)

In 1986, Hopps became an Officer of the Order of Canada. He died in 1998, after having permanently altered how medicine and technology interact with one another.

If you would like to read more about John Alexander Hopps and the pacemaker, you can explore his fonds, which is housed at Library and Archives Canada. Hopps’s fonds includes a wide range of materials, from textual documents relating to his work to pictures that help shed light on the evolution of the pacemaker to images of cardiac operations.


Rebecca Meunier is a student orientation technician at Library and Archives Canada.

Images of Therapies and Treatments now on Flickr

Many medical treatments in Canada today use drugs or surgery to treat symptoms, or the signs of illness. However, Canada has a history of therapies and treatments that are less invasive. Some of these practices are still conducted, while others seem odd or outdated. Treatment using radiation, or physical and psychological therapies still enjoy a level of popular use by medical practitioners, therapists, and patients to address a wide range of ailments – while the use of electric shocks, or ultraviolet lighting is outdated.

A black-and-white photograph of a nurse positioning an x-ray apparatus over a male patient’s right cheek. The patient is lying down on a bed.

A nurse is giving cancer treatment to a patient using x-ray therapy (MIKAN 3603337)

A black-and-white photograph of a nurse attending a female patient receiving infrared ray treatment from a lamp. The patient is lying down on a bed.

Château Laurier Hotel – woman receives infrared ray treatment, therapeutic department, Ottawa, Ontario (MIKAN 3337271)

Visit the Flickr album now!

A document of interest: an 1818 letter dealing with the treatment of Irish immigrants suffering from typhoid fever

By Martin Lanthier

In the early 19th century, the arrival of ships carrying sometimes-ill immigrants raised fears that epidemics would spread in Lower Canada. The colony’s elite became aware of the situation and took initiatives to address the problem.

The correspondence of the Civil Secretary to the Governor of Lower Canada (RG4-A1, MIKAN 105377) includes documents that reflect these concerns and that describe incidents faced by physicians at the time. One particular example is a letter from Dr. William Hacket, dated July 29, 1818, in which he describes his efforts to care for Irish settlers suffering from typhoid fever.

The immigrants had arrived at the city of Québec on July 21 aboard the Royal Edward. A number of them were sick and, after a few days, it was decided to treat them. Since no hospital could accommodate such a large number of patients (119), and because conditions on board the vessel were unsanitary, the order was given to quarantine and treat the patients on Île au Ruau [or Île aux Ruaux], near Grosse Île in the St. Lawrence River. Dr. Hacket was put in charge, assisted by two colleagues, Dr. Wright and Dr. Holmes.

In his letter, written six days after the arrival of the passengers on the island, Dr. Hacket first describes his difficulties in convincing them to leave the ship—some declared that they would only be removed by force. He then goes on to say that without the help of soldiers, who set up a camp, he would never have been able to accommodate and treat the patients.

First page of a handwritten letter, black ink on white paper.

Letter from Dr. William Hacket to A.W. Cochrane, Civil Secretary, Québec, July 29, 1818 (RG4-A1, volume 180 MIKAN 126122). e011181012

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