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Becoming a Nurse


The first nursing schools opened in Alberta around 1905 to 1908 mostly in Edmonton, although many young women also went out of province to attend schools in Manitoba and Ontario. Early nursing schools were notorious for their strict regulations and demanding programs. Although entrance requirements varied between schools, in general, they required that applicants be between the ages of 19 to 35 and had achieved a grade standing in school of 9 to 11. Candidates were required letters of reference attesting to their character and health. If accepted they entered a 3 year program in which they worked long hours in hospitals, outside of which they also had to attend lectures, study and write exams. For their work, student nurses received very little pay and, often during the 1930s, no pay at all.  Young women often boarded at nursing schools and the rules regarding their behaviour both during and outside of school hours were strict. However, these rules were tempered with leniency, as administrators realized that the demand for nurses was high and they sought to keep and attract student nurses.


For women in Alberta, there were many attractions to becoming a nurse. Like teaching, nursing was one of the few occupations open to women that allowed for career advancement. Nurses who went to work in remote rural areas were highly respected and appreciated by communities and those who worked in urban hospitals had the opportunity to move up into more administrative roles. Historian Kathryn McPherson argues that in particular rural women were attracted to nursing. Nursing schools often targeted rural women in campaign to attract students since it was believed that they were a hardier lot, better prepared for the three years of hard labour, and they were seen to be more moral, as they grew up away from the vices of the city. 


For rural women, nursing became an especially attractive option during the 1930s when the Depression struck. McPherson states that the opportunities for rural women during this period diminished as farm work was certainly not as profitable and women entering "white-collar" professions were accused of taking jobs from men. Nursing, however, was an exception; as other work opportunities diminished in the 1930s, the demands for nurses increased. Women liked the fact that nursing promised free room and board for three years. Also, as most rural women had to leave their homes and communities and move to urban areas, nursing promised greater independence and an entry to the urban job market that was increasingly seen as more profitable than the rural one. Nursing gave many women the chance to travel around the province, country or even overseas and the opportunity to choose between working in an urban or rural environment.



  • Boutilier, Beverly.  "Nursing Nation Builders: The Council Idea," Western Women, and the Founding of the Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada, 1896-1900."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.

  • Byfield, Ted.  Ed.  Alberta in the 20th Century.  Vol. 2.  Edmonton: United Western Communications, 1992.

  • McPherson, Kathryn.  " 'The Country is a Stern Nurse': Rural Women, Urban Hospitals and the Creation of a Western Canadian Nursing Work Force, 1920-1940."

  • Quiney, Linda J.  " 'Hardly Feminine Work!' Violet Wilson and the Canadian Voluntary Detachment Nurses of the First World War."  Framing Our Past.  Eds. Sharon Cook, et al.  Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001.



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