Well Done, Ladies

This May, a chapter in history will draw to a close when the Alumnae Association of the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing winds up its operations. The end of the Association is understandable, given that the School’s last cohort of nurses graduated in 1972, when the training program was transferred to CEGEPs.

For decades, several hundred alumnae have gathered together every year to reminisce about the days when they strode through the MGH’s corridors, headed to their patients. In total, at least 4,275 nurses graduated from the MGH School of Nursing from its creation in 1890 to its closure in 1972.

Some of them remember the strict code of conduct that obliged them to step aside and let male doctors or graduate nurses take their place in the cafeteria line or elevator. Others still recall the starched uniforms that it took so long to put on. However, their most vivid memories involve the camaraderie that developed during the three years of training.

A History Lesson

In 1890, the first aspiring nurses were welcomed by the Montreal General Hospital, then located on Dorchester Avenue (now René-Lévesque Boulevard). Not just anyone was accepted! The number of candidates greatly exceeded the number of women chosen for the training. Candidates had to be between 25 and 35 years old, meet a series of strict criteria and successfully complete a three-month probation before they were officially admitted into the three-year program.

Schedules were harsh, with study periods on top of 12-hour work shifts. A few years later, shifts were reduced to 8 hours, but the approach remained just as rigorous.

According to Barbara Arseneau, President of the Alumnae Association of the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing, who graduated from the School in 1964, “At the time, we were assigned responsibilities very quickly. We covered most of the schedules: days, evenings and nights. During night shifts, third-year students were often in charge of the units. We spent a lot of time together and that created very strong bonds between us. And those bonds are still there today, even after all these years!”

Nursing students lived in a residence. Initially, they were housed across from the hospital on Dorchester Avenue. When the MGH moved to Cedar Avenue in 1954, their residence was installed right inside the hospital, in Livingston Hall, named in honour of Gertrude Elizabeth “Nola” Livingston, Nursing Superintendent from 1890 to 1919.

Last Hurrah

Although nursing has not been taught at the MGH for over 45 years, the Association remained active until recently/ Alumnae attended annual meetings and worked to preserve the memory and history of nursing education at the MGH for the benefit of students and researchers.

On May 4, 2018, the Association will hold its last homecoming. The evening event will bring together graduates from all classes. More than 560 of them, from the 1947 to 1972 graduating classes, are expected to attend the reunion at the Château Champlain. Some of them are coming all the way from the United States, Bermuda, the United Kingdom, Germany and even Australia. Barbara Arseneau has proudly announced that all Canadian provinces will be represented at the farewell evening.

“We really hope that the evening will be unforgettable. A number of surprises are in store for the participants! We will also hold a smaller event in Livingston Hall on May 4, in the morning, to launch the festivities. As the room has great meaning for graduates, we can’t think of a better place to wind things up.”

Support for Teaching and Research

The Association’s mission also included encouraging upcoming generations of nurses by awarding annual scholarships to students at McGill University and Dawson, Vanier and John Abbot colleges. In addition, MGH nurses were eligible for merit awards aimed at highlighting their contribution to education, research, the practice of nursing and leadership.

Before permanently shutting down its activities, the Association wants to make sure that aspiring nurses in search of training will continue to have access to scholarships and bursaries. Its remaining funds will therefore be transferred to the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and McGill University, to support nursing education.

With the upcoming end of a chapter in history, the Montreal General Hospital Foundation wants to underline the incredible contribution of the Alumnae Association of the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing. The Association’s hard work for over 100 years has certainly made a difference in nursing education and the continuous improvement of patient care. On behalf of the community, well done, ladies!

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