This Week in History


The Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada

This story was initially published in 2001

On February 1, 1897, Lady Ishbel Aberdeen and the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) revealed to the Press plans to create a "Victorian Order of Home Helpers" to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The organization they founded would play an important role in Canadian health care over the next century.

Lady Ishbel Aberdeen and the National Council of Women of Canada

Lady Ishbel Aberdeen and
the National Council of Women of Canada

© Library and Archives Canada / PA-28034

During the late 1800s, Canadians worried over the health of mothers, particularly those too geographically isolated or poor to have access to doctors, nurses or midwives to deliver their babies. Concerned, the NCWC and Lady Aberdeen decided to create a group of home helpers who would "go from house to house doing all sorts of mercy and kindnesses." This idea was refined into the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) when nursing leaders pointed out that nursing was a profession that required exceptional, fully-trained individuals.

Wife of the Governor General, Lady Aberdeen quickly won political support for the organization. Ironically, it was doctors who fought the idea - the Ontario Medical Society claimed an order of visiting nurses would be dangerous to the public! This criticism stemmed from both prejudice against women in health care and fear of competition. Only the intervention of Dr. Alfred Worchester, Professor of Hygiene at Harvard University, calmed this opposition, allowing VON to proceed with its objectives. From the outset, VON followed strict training standards to develop superior nurses. VON's six-month training course was the first and only Canadian course on public health and visiting nursing until 1920!

VON headquarters, 5 Blackburn Avenue, Ottawa

Former VON headquarters,
5 Blackburn Avenue, Ottawa

© Courtesy of VON Canada

To care for isolated pioneers, VON established "cottage" hospitals that helped with everything from childbirth to dentistry. City branches provided health care to those too poor to afford doctors. Community-based, VON became familiar with its patients' needs and innovative at finding ways of fulfilling them. For instance, recognizing that unpasteurized milk caused diseases in children, VON established milk depots, which developed into "well-baby" clinics, providing check-ups for mothers and babies, booster shots and lessons on preventative medicine.

Since the creation of federal welfare programs, governments have assumed health care services recommended and established by organizations like VON. Ironically, this success brought about a change in the type of services VON offered. Now the organization focuses on another pertinent health need: providing quality home care and programs for the elderly.

For its continued role in pioneering and improving Canadian health care programs, the Victorian Order of Nurses was designated as an organization of National Historic Significance in 1997.

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