This Week in History


Future War Hero

For the week of Monday March 17, 2014

On March 22, 1884, Elizabeth Smellie, a driving force in the struggle to care for the wartime wounded, was born in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), Ontario.

Matron Elizabeth Smellie
© Library and Archives Canada / Department of National Defence
The young “Beth” Smellie was quick to follow in the steps of her father, Dr. T.S.T. Smellie. Despite his initial opposition to her plans, Beth studied nursing at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Afterwards, she became involved in caring for the sick as a night supervisor at McKellar Hospital, Port Arthur, where her father practised medicine.  

Everything changed when the First World War broke out. Elizabeth Smellie had all the necessary qualifications to join the Canadian Army Medical Corps and enlisted as a nursing sister. In 1915, she left for England with the 2nd Contingent of Nursing Sisters. Her nursing duties included changing bandages, binding up wounds and caring for patients suffering from tuberculosis, mustard gas burns, gangrene or fever. She also served in France and on the hospital ship taking wounded soldiers back to North America. In recognition of her dedication, she was promoted to Assistant to the Matron‑in‑Chief of the Canadian Army Nursing Service and received the Royal Red Cross Award, First Class, presented to her personally by King George V.  

Canadian Army Medical Corps nurses aboard the Lady Nelson hospital ship during the Second World War (January 1944)
© Library and Archives Canada / Lieut. Frederick G. Whitcombe / Department of National Defence / PA‑163661

After the war, Elizabeth Smellie continued to provide care for Canadians by taking nursing courses, teaching nursing and practising her profession in Canada. She helped to expand the Victorian Order of Nurses across Canada and became Chief Superintendent of the organization. At the start of the Second World War, she returned to military duty. To her great disappointment though, she was put in the less active role of Matron‑in‑Chief of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. She was also temporarily in charge of administering the medical units of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1944, she became the first nurse promoted to the rank of Colonel.

For her outstanding service in the army and her leadership in both World Wars, Elizabeth Smellie has been designated a Person of National Historic Significance. In addition, in recognition of the care provided for Canadians by the Order, the Victorian Order of Nurses has been designated a National Historic Event. 

To learn more about Canadian nurses, read the following articles in the This Week in History archives: First Female Major, NONIA: A Welcome Addition to the Community, The Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada and Patients and Devotion: Georgina Fane Pope.

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