Top News

Myra Bennett was Newfoundland’s 'Florence Nightingale of the North'

Nurse Myra Grimsley  in 1921
Nurse Myra Grimsley in 1921

There have been many stories over the past century about the exploits of nurses in rural Newfoundland and Labrador

 

Most of these nurses were trained in England or the United States and came to province to practice for a few years before returning home. A small number decided to remain, however.. One of these went on to become a legend in her time.

Myra Maud Grimsley was born in London, England, on April 1, 1890, the second of nine children of Patty Ellen Crapper and Stephen Alexander Grimsley.

She attended London County Council schools, but left at age 14, having completed her course of study, to work in a tailor's shop. At 20, she enrolled in a nurse's training program at a hospital near Manchester.

To cover the cost of her training, Grimsley worked as a district nurse at the railway junction town of Woking, in Surrey, from 1911 to 1915. She then enrolled in a six-month course in maternity nursing at Woolwich, where she earned the prestigious and much-coveted Central Midwives' Board certificate.

A three-month trial placement as a case worker in North London was followed by a three-year stint as full-time case worker in that area. In 1918, she accepted a position as resident nurse in a home for unwed mothers in London.

Overseas journey

In 1920, Grimsley made a decision that would dramatically affect her nursing career. Aware of the need for nurses in Canada, she planned to spend several years in Saskatchewan under the auspices of the Overseas Nursing Association. In preparation for this move she completed courses in midwifery and anesthesia at the Clapham School of Midwifery.

While awaiting her assignment in Canada, she was approached by Lady Constance Harris, wife of the Governor of Newfoundland, who was in England recruiting nurses on behalf of the Outport Nursing Scheme, a forerunner of the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association (NONIA).

Harris alerted Grimsley to the desperate need for nurses in the isolated communities of coastal Newfoundland and convinced her to venture there instead.

 RELATED: History is her story, too

 

Most of these nurses were trained in England or the United States and came to province to practice for a few years before returning home. A small number decided to remain, however.. One of these went on to become a legend in her time.

Myra Maud Grimsley was born in London, England, on April 1, 1890, the second of nine children of Patty Ellen Crapper and Stephen Alexander Grimsley.

She attended London County Council schools, but left at age 14, having completed her course of study, to work in a tailor's shop. At 20, she enrolled in a nurse's training program at a hospital near Manchester.

To cover the cost of her training, Grimsley worked as a district nurse at the railway junction town of Woking, in Surrey, from 1911 to 1915. She then enrolled in a six-month course in maternity nursing at Woolwich, where she earned the prestigious and much-coveted Central Midwives' Board certificate.

A three-month trial placement as a case worker in North London was followed by a three-year stint as full-time case worker in that area. In 1918, she accepted a position as resident nurse in a home for unwed mothers in London.

Overseas journey

In 1920, Grimsley made a decision that would dramatically affect her nursing career. Aware of the need for nurses in Canada, she planned to spend several years in Saskatchewan under the auspices of the Overseas Nursing Association. In preparation for this move she completed courses in midwifery and anesthesia at the Clapham School of Midwifery.

While awaiting her assignment in Canada, she was approached by Lady Constance Harris, wife of the Governor of Newfoundland, who was in England recruiting nurses on behalf of the Outport Nursing Scheme, a forerunner of the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association (NONIA).

Harris alerted Grimsley to the desperate need for nurses in the isolated communities of coastal Newfoundland and convinced her to venture there instead.

 RELATED: History is her story, too

Myra with other nurses on the voyage from England in April, 1921

Grimsley accepted Harris's offer of a two-year contract at $1,000 per year. She was sent to Daniel's Harbour on the western side of the Great Northern Peninsula where she became the only formally trained nurse available to the many hundreds of people who lived in the scattered communities along that rugged 200-mile coastline.

Nurse Myra Grimsley in 1915

Arriving in Daniel's Harbour on May 27, 1921, Grimsley spent the next eight months as a boarder with the Moss family. Her duties went far beyond the traditional responsibilities of an English midwife: counselling expectant mothers, delivering babies and providing post-partum advice. In addition to dealing with complications that might arise during delivery, she was also expected to suture wounds, set broken bones, extract teeth, treat communicable diseases and provide much-needed information on health care and nutrition.

For this work her clinic, dispensary, operating and delivery rooms were located in the houses of the people she cared for. In order to visit some of her patients, she often had to travel many miles by foot, by horse and slide, or by small boat, sometimes in the dead of winter, in all winds and weathers. She gave little thought to her own safety when there was a sick or injured person waiting for her at the end of her journey.

During her first year in Daniel's Harbour, Grimsley met and fell in love with local merchant and fisherman, Angus Bennett. They were married Jan. 26, 1922. Shortly after their marriage they moved into a newly constructed house that Angus had built, where her kitchen would serve as her clinic for the next two decades.

MORE: Visit a virtual exhibit of Nurse Bennett Heritage House.

 Now as Myra Bennett, her two-year contract ended in 1923, but as a married woman, she was not offered a renewal.

Women were expected to leave the workforce once they married, regardless of how desperately their services were needed. And with her marriage to Angus Bennett, it was common knowledge that she would be settling in Daniel's Harbour, so why pay a trained nurse when there was one already in residence in the community.

This fact -- her status as a permanent resident of Daniel's Harbour -- just might have influenced decisions made by officials in St. John's. No nurse was sent to Daniel's Harbour to replace Bennett when her contract expired. NONIA, which had come into being the previous year, established a nursing station at Port Saunders, 30 miles up the coast from Daniel's Harbour, instead.

Her lack of formal employment did not hinder the demand for Bennett's services and for the next 10 years she continued to see patients in her kitchen clinic even though she lacked the authority to send them to hospital or provide them with medications. It was not until the Commission of Government took office in 1934 that she returned to the government payroll, albeit in a part-time capacity, as a public-health nurse.

During that time she was asked by government to provide midwifery training to a number of local women. She developed strong working relationships with doctors at the hospitals in St. Anthony, Norris Point and Port Saunders, doctors who came to depend on her as part of the medical establishment along the coast.

In 1942, Angus built an extension on to their house to serve as a clinic, thereby providing a little more privacy for both her patients and her family.

Myra and Angus Bennett and their three children

Un-retirement

Bennett retired from her formal nursing duties in 1953 but continued to treat patients for another 30 years. She was well into her 90s when she stopped seeing patients. It is reported that during her years as a practicing nurse she delivered more 3,000 to 5,000 babies and pulled more than 3,000 teeth.

In addition to the constant demands placed upon her as a nurse, Bennett raised three children of her own - Grace, Trevor and Barbara -  and found time to serve as bookkeeper in her husband's business.

The Bennetts were a very busy couple. Along with Myra's career as a nurse and Angus’ work as a fisherman/storekeeper, they were foster parents to six children.

As well, Myra trained three local women as midwives, played the church organ, led the choir, made bread, hooked mats, sheared sheep, carded and spun wool and still found time to make her own soap.

People who remember her recall a woman who was always doing something. Sitting at her kitchen table, she'd knit and read at the same time. Her son, Trevor, says she always crocheted on car trips.

Stories about Myra abound. She fashioned incubators for premature babies from old shoeboxes packed with cotton wool. To feed the babies, she took milk from the mothers, added a drop of brandy, and fed it drop by drop to the infant. She designed her own apparatus to keep a broken limb in traction.

She was actively involved in her church and community, leading the fundraising drive for the construction of a dispensary in Daniel's Harbour in 1954.

International recognition of her tremendous contribution to the health and well-being of the people who lived along the western side of the Great Northern Peninsula came early and often. In 1935 she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal, followed in 1937 by the King George VI Coronation Medal.

In 1946 she was invested as a Member of the Order of the British Empire and, seven years later in 1953, she received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal.

Nurse Myra Bennett received an honourary degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1974.

Recognition

On the home front, in 1967, she was made as an honorary member of the Association of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and, in 1974, awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Memorial University. That year she was also named a member of the Order of Canada.

During her latter years, Myra Bennett's life and career as a nurse in rural Newfoundland caught the attention of a number of Canadian writers. In 1965 she was featured in an article in Weekend Magazine; five years later a similar story appeared in Readers' Digest. That article was written by H. Gordon Green, who was so enthralled by her that, with her co-operation, he wrote her life story, published in book form as Don't Have Your Baby in the Dory! by Harvest House press of Montreal in 1973. As well as Robert Chafe's  2000 play Tempting Providence, which brings to life many of the triumphs and challenges of the much-loved Nurse Myra Bennett. 

RELATED:  ‘Tempting Providence’ acting up on Burnt Islands

Bennett had been working away on her memoirs since the early 1960s but never quite got around to completing them. (Her son Trevor published the work in 2012 as My story: The Florence Nightingale of the North)

After all, there were more important things to do like seeing patients and getting on with living. And live she did. Myra Bennett died April 26, 1990, in Wawa, Ont., 25 days after celebrating her 100th birthday.

In 1999, the house that Myra and Angus Bennett had lived in Daniel's Harbour was restored and opened to the public as a museum. It documents her life of service to the residents of the area and also pays tribute to outport nursing throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.

It is operated by the Nurse Myra Bennett Foundation, a non-profit organization with the mandate to preserve and promote the life and career of the woman whom many affectionately referred to as the "Florence Nightingale of the North."

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the April 26, 2004, edition of Telegram as The 'Florence Nightingale of the North': Nurse Myra Bennett made a tremendous contribution to patients in the Daniel's Harbour area, by Bert Riggs, with files from Home of the Northern Nurse: The people of Daniel's Harbour are especially proud of Myra Bennett's house, by Jean Edwards Stacey, in the, March 2, 1998, Evening Telegram.

Recent Stories