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civilization and the caring profession

by Moira Farr | June 2, 2005

White cap. Blue cape. Sturdy black leather bag filled with gauze bandages, hypodermic needles and antiseptics – need any more clues as to who these objects represent? Nurse Jane of course!

A Caring Profession: Centuries of Nursing in Canada, a new exhibition at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, is filled with amazing artifacts dating back to 1639, when the first hospital, Hotel Dieu, was founded in Quebec. Nuns, nurse practitioners, home-care nurses, aboriginal midwives, public-health nurses – they’ve all played a role in the development of nursing in Canada and they are all represented here.

  • Peer into china jars an “apothecaress” would have used to mix up tonics, lotions and pills in the eighteenth century. (Check out another one labelled LEECHES. Bloodletting used to be the only treatment for ... just about everything.)
  • See the lamp used by Florence Nightingale, famous founder of modern nursing, when she was caring for soldiers during the Crimean War of the 1850s.
  • Take a look inside the backpack of Toronto street nurse Cathy Crowe (it’s got everything from condoms to bandages to energy bars to fresh socks), who treats her homeless patients with dignity and campaigns on their behalf for better health care – and homes.
  • Watch vintage films and contemporary videos of nurses at work.
  • Hear what they have to say about their job, and why they do it.

This exhibition makes it clear that, while nurses today may not wear caps and capes, their central role remains the same as ever: caring for the sick, sometimes in the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

“Whether it was 350 years ago or today, good nursing care can make the difference between a patient surviving or not,” says Christina Bates, exhibition curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. She also co-edited (with Dianne Dodd and Nicole Rousseau) On All Frontiers: Four Centuries of Canadian Nursing. (A French version is available entitled Sans Frontieres.)

Canadian nurses have stitched wounds in remote coastal outports and helped women give birth safely in isolated northern outposts. They treated gold prospectors who contracted typhoid fever on the Klondike Trail in the early twentieth century. They helped care for massive numbers of sick and dying victims of the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak. They played a crucial role in caring for the injured during the Halifax explosion of 1917. They donned uniforms in both world wars – in fact, they were the first female military officers in the world – and assisted surgeons operating on wounded soldiers in portable field hospitals. And they bravely risked their own health as they donned masks and gloves and cared for gravely ill patients during the Toronto SARS outbreak of 2003.

More men are entering the profession today, but nursing remains identified with the “feminine” virtue of nurturing – something nurses have mixed feelings about. Most are proud of the work they do, and it is all about caring. But the struggle to be recognized and respected as professionals has been a long and difficult one. It continues today – A Caring Profession also documents current nursing issues, from unionization and short-staffing to the “brain drain” to the U.S.

The exhibit even includes a nursing station, complete with message boards where viewers may leave comments about what they’ve seen. “I’m going to keep as many of these as I can,” says Ms. Bates. “They are very moving, some of them personal accounts.”

She says there have been tears as well. A veteran nursing sister vividly remembered her war years, when she put soldiers considered “walking wounded” to work because there was so much to be done for their severely injured comrades.

Powerful memories, triggered by a powerful exhibition that showcases the experiences and reflections of generations of Canadian nurses who have always been there, and still are, at the heart of our history.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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