Nurses pioneered in Alberta

Nurses played a major role in setting up the first hospitals in the province and by the time Alberta became a province in 1905 many nurses were working in all communities from north to south. Nursing has had a glorious history of helping to build the province and care for its citizens ever since.

The first health agency in the province was the hospital-school-orphanage that the Grey Nuns built in St. Albert in 1870. The three Grey Nuns sisters had come to the province at the request of Father Lacombe in 1859. Another early hospital was the so-called police hospital in 1874 at the Northwest Mounted Police post at Fort Macleod.

Alberta's first lay nurse, Miss Mary Newton, arrived at Hermitage near Edmonton in the late 1880s. In 1891 she was advertising that she was prepared to do nursing and midwifery in homes for the fee of ten dollars per week. A graduate of one of the new nursing schools in London, England, Miss Newton worked partly under her association with the Anglican church.

In 1890 Calgary saw the establishment of both the Calgary General Hospital and the Holy Cross Hospital. The Galt Hospital in Lethbridge was opened about the same time, as was the Medicine Hat General, with Miss Grace Reynolds as the Matron and Miss Mary Ellen Birtles as her assistant. The Victorian Order of Nurses after the turn of the century helped to establish small "cottage hospitals" like those named after Lady Minto in Red Deer, Islay and Edson.

With the arrival of the CPR, growth came quickly and physicians arrived to care for the mine and railway employees. They opened hospitals and hired British-trained nurses. Hospitals were administered by a Matron who worked under an all-male board of directors.

Many of the first hospitals were funded and administered by companies, like the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge which was operated by the Alberta Coal and Railway Company. For people who were not employees some hospitals charged fifty cents a day, if the person was able to pay. At the Grey Nuns hospital in Edmonton, they claimed that "never a pauper patient has been refused admittance."

Nursing schools were opened just a few years later. Discipline for nurses was strict and included: "a professional spirit which includes a cheerful, willing obedience to authority." The young women were enjoined to: "at all times guard against anything that would bring dishonour to their school or their profession." Nursing was considered a good preparation for marriage and the students were paid very little, virtually volunteering their labour to the hospitals.

By 1904 there were enough nurses in Calgary to form the Calgary Association of Graduate Nurses. In 1914 they joined with the Edmonton group to become the Graduate Nurses Association of Alberta. They lobbied the government for professional status and in 1916 the Registered Nurses Act was passed establishing the Alberta Association of Graduate Nurses.
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