Image: Canadian nurses with wounded soldiers (Provincial Archives of Alberta [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)
Myrtle Melissa Brown, a graduate nurse, enlisted with Canadian Army Medical Care (CAMC) on 24 March 1917 as a Nursing Sister. She was one of thirty-one nursing sisters from Grey County (1), and among the eighteen who had graduated from the Owen Sound Collegiate Institute. (2)
Myrtle was from a farming family in Derby Township near Owen Sound, the eldest daughter of Melissa Brown and Samuel Horton Brown. Her grandparents were John Fleming and Margaret Robertson of Kilsyth and her great grandparents Alexander Fleming and Jean (Stewart).
Born 22 Jul 1889, Myrtle was described in the Attestation Paper as twenty-eight years old, 5’ 3” in height, 116 pounds in weight, and with grey eyes. She was a Disciple (Church of Christ) by faith.(3)
This excerpt from “The First World War’s nursing sisters,” Canadian Nurse provides some background.(4)
In total, 3,141 nurses served from 1914 into the early 1920s, with more than 2,500 seeing duty overseas. Trained nurses before the war, almost all of them came from hospitals, universities and medical professions from across Canada and the United States. All were women. Most were single and between the ages of 21 and 38; the average age was 24. They were all were volunteers, and there was never a shortage. For example, when a call was made in January 1915 to fill 75 positions, 2,000 nurses applied.
On 6 April 1917 she embarked for England and began her service at the Ontario Military Hospital at Orpington. This was considered “one of the most advanced military hospitals in the world,” well equipped and supplied. (7) On 21 September 1917 Myrtle was transferred overseas to the No 3 Canadian Hospital at Bourgogne France. This hospital had begun as a tent city in June 1915 and moved to “a partly-destroyed Jesuit College at Boulogne-Sur-Mer.” Conditions would not have been comfortable. (5)
Health problems described as “debility” sent her back to England to hospitals in Basingstoke and Buxton where she spent three months, from 5 October 1917 to 9 January 1918. Flat feet were noted as a problem but it’s unlikely that would be a reason for such an extended hospital stay. The records are hard to read after that, though it appears she was posted to the CAMC hospital at Shorncliffe, England and possibly Orpington again until she was “struck from service” on 8 August 1919. Her records show service at Westenhanger, Orpington and the CAMC Casualty Company at Shorncliffe, all in England.
In the Canadian Expeditionary Force all nurses received the rank of Lieutenant and equal pay to men. Pay records show that Myrtle received $50 a month
A note in the personnel records held at Library and Archives Canada indicates that Myrtle worked at Christie St. Hospital in Toronto.
The note is not dated but might have been added to her file after 1919. The Toronto Military Orthopaedic Hospital, located on Christie between Dupont and Davenport, opened in 1919 for veterans of World War One and the Boer War. In 1936 it was renamed the Christie Street Veterans’ Hospital. Myrtle probably joined the staff here soon after the war. The 1940 Voters’ List shows a Myrtle Brown, “graduate nurse,” at the Christie St Military Hospital in Toronto. By 1940 the hospital had fallen into disrepair. Located in a smoke-belching industrial neighbourhood and close to the rail line, it was not ideal for patient recovery and became overcrowded as casualties arrived from World War Two. Finally, in 1948 the new military hospital at Sunnybrook took all Christie Street patients and that building was converted to a seniors home. (6) It is likely that Myrtle continued to live in the Christie Street area. The 1963 Voters’ List lists a Myrtle Brown, nurse, in an apartment at 6 Pinewood Ave, a twenty-minute walk from the hospital. Hopefully, by 1963 she was a retired nurse
Myrtle attended the Fleming Reunion Picnic in July 1927 in Kilsyth that had been organized by Jennie Fleming to bring together descendants of her parents, Alexander and Jean (Stewart) Fleming. Myrtle’s parents and four siblings (Erskine, Greta, Albert, and Wilda) were also present. In the group photo Myrtle looks well but tired and sad –she does not smile. We lose track of her after that event except for the entries on the Voters’ Lists. She died in 1979 and was buried with her parents in Greenwood Cemetery, Owen Sound.
Memoirs and Letters
Unfortunately we have no letters or photos from Myrtle’s time in England, but there are two other sources that describe the work of nurses in the casualty stations and hospitals, the progress of the war, their patients, and their lives off-duty.
Luella Euphemia Denton (1888 to 1939) was born in Owen Sound, and enlisted in 1916 after graduating from University of Michigan hospital. Letters she wrote to a friend in Annan Grey County 1916 to 1919 are held at Grey Roots Museum and may be read online. https://greyroots.com/story/canadian-nursing-sister
Mabel B. Clint (1876-1939) was born in Quebec City. A very experienced trained nurse she was one of the first to enlist. Her memoir, Our bit : memories of war service by a Canadian Nursing Sister (1934) covers her time from enlistment into the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1914, through her postings in England, France, Greece, Egypt. Digitized version is at University of Calgary Digital Collections http://contentdm.ucalgary.ca/digital/collection/cmh/id/27826
More About Nursing Sisters
There is further information about the nursing sisters at:
The War Museum
Canadian Great War Project
Nursing Sisters – https://thediscoverblog.com/2015/07/28/nursing-sisters/
Library and Archives Canada, “Caregiving on the Front: The Experience of Canadian Military Nurses During World War I” http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/canada-nursing-sisters/Pages/caregiving-on-the-front.aspx
Photo history by Melina Druga, WW1: Canadian Nurses
1. Listed by E.L. Marsh in A History of the County of Grey. (Owen Sound: Fleming Publishing Company, 1931)
2. Noted in short biography of Luella Euphemia “Euphie” Denton
3. Myrtle Melissa Brown, #27305, WWI CEF Attestation Papers, 1914-1918, Personnel Records of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada
4. “The First World War’s nursing sisters,” Canadian Nurse (1 November 2016) https://www.canadian-nurse.com/en/articles/issues/2016/november-2016/the-first-world-wars-nursing-sisters
5. Susan Issac, “We will remember them: No 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) 1915-1918,” Royal College of Surgeons [website] (10 November 2017) https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/library-and-publications/library/blog/we-will-remember-them-no-3-canadian-general-hospital/
6. Two articles about the Christie St. Hospital:
David Wencer, Historicist: Making Sunnybrook Military Hospital a Reality, Torontoist [website] (12 November 2016)
Mike Filey, The Way We Were: A military hospital to support personnel, Toronto Sun (9 June 2018)
7. Ontario Military Hospital – Orpington, Kent, England. Archives of Ontario. Has several photographs. http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/explore/online/Robertson/Ontario_Military_Hospital.aspx