This Week in History


Mary Meager Southcott: "Florence Nightingale" of Newfoundland

This story was initially published in 2006

On June 13, 1913, Mary Meager Southcott, a leader and educator of nurses, founded the first professional nurses’ association in Newfoundland and served as its first president.

Mary Meager Southcott
Mary Meager Southcott
© Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2004
Mary was born on September 21, 1862, in St. John’s to Pamela and John Southcott. By 1895, her parents were deceased, allowing her freedom to become a nurse, an ambition she had long harboured.

In the late 19th century, there were few respectable careers for middle-class women. Nursing was not one of them. Early nurses were often untrained female domestics or former patients who resided on ill-kept hospital wards where they were exposed to disease. Consequently, parents of middle- and upper-class ladies resisted allowing their daughters to become nurses.

Southcott went to London, England, in 1899 to study nursing. Here, she was exposed to the “Nightingale system,” established by British nurse, Florence Nightingale. Anglo-Protestant hospitals in Canada adopted aspects of this system, including using trained nurses, providing professional recognition, and allowing authority over nurses by nursing superintendents.

Resident nurses at the General Hospital
Nurses at the General Hospital
© Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2004
In 1903, Southcott returned to St. John’s to become Superintendent of Nurses at the General Hospital. Here, Southcott worked to make nursing a respectable profession. She established the hospital’s School of Nursing. Like other nursing schools of this period, her nurses staffed the hospital while being trained. Southcott next founded a residence, King Edward VII nurses’ home, where nurses-in-training resided. Then Southcott established the Graduate Nurses’ Association in 1913, which created the St. John’s Nurses’ Registry. This list of private duty nurses available for employment in patient’s homes enabled their employment. The Association also worked to upgrade educational standards for nurses and advocated for the “registered nurse” title.

Dr. Lawrence Keegan, the medical superintendent of the hospital, challenged Southcott’s power. Trouble began in 1912 over the issue of authority for the hiring and firing of nursing staff. Dr. Keegan rejected the idea that nursing superintendents be responsible for nurses’ training. Southcott disagreed. This stalemate resulted in the Royal Commission of 1914-15. Although the Commission uncovered no complaints from other doctors, Southcott’s resignation was requested. The medical superintendent was granted authority over the nurses in the General Hospital Act.

A leader among women and nurses, Southcott advocated female suffrage in Newfoundland, helped to educate local midwives, established a private maternity hospital and was the founding president of the Child Welfare Association in 1921. Mary Meager Southcott was designated a National Historic Person for her pioneering efforts to professionalize, educate and organize Newfoundland’s nurses.

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