January 23, 1998


Eighty years filled with firsts

The Faculty of Nursing celebrates its 80th Anniversary with a kick off January 29

Folio Staff

Student nurses, 1940s

From Girl Friday, to the 60s film sex symbol to today's careerists, the image of nurses has changed dramatically since 1918 when the U of A became the first university in Canada to provide nurses education.

In general, though, the harder the times, the better nurses look, says Dr. Janet Ross-Kerr, professor of nursing. "During periods when there have been problems like wars, the image of nurses has gone way up."

University Hospital

But the role of nurses has changed every bit as dramatically as their image. "I think the women's movement is an important factor," says Ross-Kerr, "but I think the evolution of health-care has expanded the nurse's role."

"There's an incredible number of patient support systems out there that nurses have to work with in patient care." Technology has made much equipment such as breathing and intravenous apparatuses more complex. X-rays can be transmitted by satellite. "You need to have someone who really is on top of that as well as being a caring empathetic person," says Ross-Kerr.

Nurse examining child at
1928 travelling health

Graduates of the master's program are now involved in assessment and diagnosis and guidelines are being developed for those nurses to prescribe drugs. "You have nurses functioning at almost beyond the practice of the general practitioner a number of years ago," says Ross-Kerr.

Spin off professions have also developed. Both midwifery and physiotherapy used to be a regular part of nursing practice.

A look at the early history shows there's not much nurses didn't do. Dr. Sharon Richardson, who's completing a history of the nursing education at the U of A, says in the early years, nurses were trained to be primarily public health and district nurses. Both became a critical support for the infant province.

Kate Shaw Colley (Brighty), 1919 grad heads to duties
in Onoway

The public health certificate offered in 1918 was an answer to pressure from the Alberta Farm Women's Association-led by one of Canada's first feminists, Irene Parlby. Nurses in the program were already graduates of a hospital nursing school and were sent throughout the province with a legislative mandate to "inspect" its children.

Nurses looked for infections in the upper respiratory tract, dental caries, and signs of malnourishment, for instance, and then parents were required by law to correct the problem. "It wasn't so much health promotion as an inspection, looking for 'defects,'" says Richardson. "Of course we were attempting to Anglo-Saxonize the non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants."

Agnes Macleod first full-time
director of the School of
Nursing from 1937-1945

In 1919, the District Nurses Act sent nurses to rural Alberta to play a more active role. "Alberta had the highest infant mortality rate in Canada at the time," says Richardson. The nurses were specially trained in obstetrics and "were legally empowered to provide midwifery and emergency services where there was no physician or hospital." Laura Attrux epitomized these early nurses. She was awarded an honorary U of A degree for the spirit that saw her buy her own plane to cover the vast territory from the Peace River area to Fort McMurray.


The following was taken, in part, from and expanded story line written by Dr. Sharon. She is currently completing a book on the history of nursing education at the U of A to be launched Reunion Weekend, October 3, 1998.

1918: The University of Alberta becomes the first university in Canada to provide education to nurses. These were certificate courses in public health nursing for nurses who had graduated from hospital training programs. The impetus for the program came from Irene Parlby, first president of the United Farm Women of Alberta and one of the "Famous Five" women whose court challenge brought Canadian women the vote.

1923: The U of A institutes a three-year nursing diploma program.

1923: First degree program begins. Both the diploma and the degree programs were intended to provide student labor for the Strathcona Hospital, purchased in 1922 and renamed the U of A hospital.

1943: Advanced practice obstetrical certificate program launched.

1975: First masters program in nursing introduced in Alberta

1989: Only Philosophical Institute for Nursing Research in the world is established.

1996: First nursing program in Canada to establish and associate dean of teaching position.

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