This Week in History


First Female Major

For the week of Monday August 11, 2008

On August 17, 1914, Margaret Clotilde Macdonald became Matron-in-Chief of the Canadian nursing sisters, becoming the first female to achieve the military rank of major in the British Empire. MacDonald came a long way for her title.

Margaret C. Macdonald as Matron-in-Chief
© Courtesy: St. F.X. Archives
Born in 1879 in Bailey’s Brook, Nova Scotia, she grew up in a wealthy family and was given opportunities that a small community with only an elementary school could not have otherwise provided. As a child she received a classical education, which was unusual for girls at that time. She went on to Mount St. Vincent Academy in Halifax and then studied nursing at Charity Hospital Training School in New York, graduating in 1895.

After graduating, MacDonald began her career as a military nurse aboard a hospital ship, Relief, caring for American soldiers wounded in the Spanish-American War of 1898. She then travelled as far as South Africa with the second Canadian contingent in 1900 to serve as a nurse during the South African War.  There she became one of the first females to receive an officer’s commission in the Canadian Army. After a brief visit home, she left for Panama in 1904 to care for malaria and yellow fever stricken workers hired to construct the Panama Canal. Returning to Canada in 1906, she was permanently appointed to the Canadian Army Medical Corps. MacDonald served in Halifax, Kingston and Québec City and was personally responsible for selecting the nurses in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Unsatisfied with established recruiting procedures, she suggested that military nursing courses be given at various hospitals across Canada and that nurses be sent to soldiers’ camps for military nursing training, which differed from civilian nursing. 

Margaret C. MacDonald, left, working at her headquarters in London
© Veterans Affairs Canada

In 1911, with a desire to improve the Canadian military nursing profession, she travelled to Great Britain to study the administration and organization of the more numerous and advanced British military nurses’ corps. In 1914 she became Matron-in-Chief. She was responsible for directing Canadian nursing services in England, France, and Greece from her London headquarters during the First World War. MacDonald received the Royal Red Cross in 1916 and the Florence Nightingale Medal in 1918. She retired in 1920 and returned to Nova Scotia where she remained until her death on September 7, 1948.

For her dedicated services, and her commitment to serving her country and improving Canadian military nursing Margaret Clotilde MacDonald was designated a National Historic Person in 1982.

Date Modified: