Surviving typhoid and extreme conditions: Mary Ellen Birtles

Before Alberta was even a province, nurses began to arrive to help the newcomers survive. Mary Ellen Birtles was one of them and one of Alberta's first hospital nurses. A true pioneer, Mary Birtles helped start two hospitals and saw many people through injury and illness. Ranchers with broken limbs from being thrown off horses were not unusual patients, but rampaging typhoid filled most of the beds. The disease took the lives of many of the new immigrants to the province and in fact nearly killed Mary Birtles herself.

Like any pioneer, Mary Birtles had to make do, keep up with or invent new methods of treatment and generally find a way to provide good care. She came to Medicine Hat in 1890, to one of the first hospitals in the province, and at the time the only hospital between Winnipeg and Vancouver Island. Miss Birtles became the assistant to Grace Reynolds who was the matron and ran the hospital. Miss Reynolds had been trained in Britain by a Miss Gordon who had been a student of Florence Nightingale's. Working with the physicians, the two nurses did the cooking, the housekeeping and all the nursing in the small hospital. During surgery, Miss Reynolds gave the anaesthetic while Miss Birtle looked after the instruments. If the nurses were able to attend church on Sunday that was their time off for the week.

In 1891, typhoid hit hard and every bed in the hospital had a typhoid patient. Mary Birtles came down with the disease herself, leaving Grace Reynolds to tend to all the patients as well as her colleague. For six weeks Mary fought the disease and recovered. In 1892, she returned to Manitoba where she had had her nurse training and became senior nurse at the new hospital in Brandon. But in 1894, she returned to Alberta as the first matron at the new Calgary General Hospital. The General began as a cottage hospital with eight beds, but often had as many as seventeen patients.

Aseptic procedure was just beginning as the time, and the hospital's disinfectants and simple solutions were purchased from a Calgary pharmacy. Miss Birtles soon learned to mix the compounds herself, saving the hospital almost her whole salary.

When a larger General was built, Miss Birtles set up the hospital's School of Nursing, one of the first in the province. She said, "I felt I knew very little to face the world with, but by dint of reading and studying and using the powers of observation, I gathered up all I could."

In 1897, Miss Birtles travelled back to her native Britain for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria and, in 1935 was invested in Ottawa with the Order of the British Empire.
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