“In those towns they will go to those who cannot now afford the care of trained nurses…. Everywhere throughout the country they will go hither and thither,” Lady Ishbel Aberdeen said in 1897, on announcing the formation of the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON).
Within two years of their formation, a team of four VON Canada nurses were in the Yukon where more than 100,000 prospectors were in the field searching for gold. In the same year, in 1898, the VON opened a site in Halifax and five other Canadian cities. Today in Nova Scotia, on its 125th anniversary, the VON operates out of eleven sites from Yarmouth to Sydney.
To mark the 125th anniversary of the VON, an exhibit was set up this spring by the Kentville Historical Society. A highlight of the exhibit was a salute to a pioneering VON nurse who worked out of Wolfville in the 1920s. This was Mary Harry (1894-1937) who went to Wolfville through the recruitment efforts of its prominent, long-time resident physician, Dr Malcolm Elliott.
Mary Harry was recruited out of Ontario, where she had worked with the VON. She had recently immigrated to Canada from Great Britain after serving in the Great War from 1914 on. A graduate of a nursing school in Plymouth, Harry had served in a variety of wartime theatres during WW1.
Harry served in Wolfville for about seven years, from 1921 to 1929, the first VON nurse to see service in the town – and possibly the first VON nurse to serve in the Annapolis Valley. In Wolfville, according to an inscription at the Historical Society, Harry became a “legend in her own time,” due to her experiences “as a nurse under widely different circumstances.”
As for her being a legend, here’s a quote from the exhibit at the Historical Society:
“A strong and memorable character, Mary was to devote herself tirelessly to public health in the schools and with the Children’s Aid Society, in addition to her other duties with the VON. She was long remembered with affection and respect in Wolfville. She and the VON in that period became effectively the chief welfare agent in the area.”
Mary Harry is also remembered by how well she carried out her duties with the VON, as a quote from Mud Creek (the Wolfville history) well illustrates:
“A move was started to consider establishing a Victorian Order of Nurses service (in Wolfville). Spearheaded by Dr. Malcolm Elliott in 1921, a local council of the VON was formed, and soon the first nurse took charge – Mary Harry, a memorable figure, recalled as ‘a weatherbeaten little English woman on a motor scooter. She was on the job seven years. Aided by a strong council, the VON became the chief welfare agent in the area. Under Miss Harry’s direction, the health of school children became a prime concern.”
Other than that she resided in Wolfville during her nursing service, apparently with her mother, little is known about Mary Harry’s private life. Leaving Wolfville in 1929, Harry worked briefly in Tennessee. The inscription in the Historical Society VON exhibit indicates she passed away in Ontario several years after leaving Wolfville. She would have been in her early forties at the time.