Welcome to another instalment in our Women’s History Month series which, if you’re coming to this site for the first time, is a Friday feature throughout the month of October here on PEI History Guy dot com. Last week’s trailblazing subject was dead obvious (see The Literary Muse), and this week’s offering? A little less so, but not by much. No doubt you’ve heard of the legendary Florence Nightingale? Well, she has an equally illustrious counterpart born and raised here on the Island.
Name: Matron Cecily Jane “Georgina” Fane Pope, R.R.C., C.A.M.C, C.E.F.
Born: 1 January 1862 in Charlottetown
Died: 6 June 1938 in Charlottetown
Accomplishments: There are many. See below.
Born of prominent Island stock, Cecily Jane Georgina Fane Pope was the daughter of William Henry Pope (an Island Father of Confederation, and all-around influential figure), and Helen DesBrisay, of a similarly noteworthy family. Today, Pope is proudly referred to around these parts as ‘the Island’s Florence Nightingale, a fitting sobriquet as Pope, at a young age, was inspired by the Crimean war nursing exploits of Florence Nightingale, and was determined to follow in the footsteps of her childhood hero. Now, her hero had set that bar fairly high. But when all was said and done, Pope would succeed in raising it to new heights.
Pope graduated from the New York Training School For Nurses (Bellevue Hospital) in 1885, after which she began working professionally. Over the next fourteen years, she worked in hospitals in Washington, D.C. and New York, and even founded a new school of nursing. By 1899, however, she began to yearn to make a greater contribution, and as it just so happened, the Canadian government was currently putting together a contingent of troops to aid the British cause in South Africa. Relying on the reputation she’d built for herself, and with a little help from her well placed political brother, Joseph, Pope received an appointment as a military nurse – a superintendent, no less – and found herself attached to the first overseas contingent.
And from there? No looking back.
Pope’s accomplishments as a military nurse are nothing short of, well, trailblazing. By the time of her (forced) retirement in March 1919, she’d succeeded in amassing an enviable collection of firsts. In chronological order:
- First nurse appointed to military service in South Africa (1899), for which she would be awarded a campaign medal (Queen’s South Africa Medal)
- First Canadian military nurse to receive the Royal Red Cross Class I Medal (1903)
- First non-permanent nurse within the Canadian military (1904)
- First permanent nurse within the newly formed Canadian Army Medical Corps (1906). The very existence of the nursing service within the CAMC owes itself, in part, to her determined political lobbying.
- First Matron of the CAMC (with the rank of Captain)
- One of only 14 Canadian military history figures commemorated on the Valiants Memorial in Ottawa.
In addition to South Africa, Pope’s twenty-year service as a military nurse also took her to the Western Front in 1917 at the age of 55, where she would eventually find herself in the thick of the bloodshed during some of the most intense combat of the First World War. She came away from it all a diagnosed neurasthenic (PTSD), which ultimately led to her retirement, and was the recipient of both a British War Medal, and a Victory Medal. She lived out the remaining years of her life in Charlottetown, a legend in her own time, having earned the respect and admiration of all who knew her. Upon her passing in June 1938, aged 76, she lay in state at Government House, and was buried with full military honours in the People’s Cemetery.
An important fact to consider in the saga of Georgina Fane Pope is that, had she chosen it, she could have easily relied on her prominent family to secure herself a good marriage and gone on to live the life of Riley; however, she opted to forego Easy Street and instead gave the whole of herself to her profession, her dream. In doing so, she greatly raised the profile of women in a sphere long dominated by men. At times it nearly cost her her life. Pope never married, nor had children, and I’m guessing that, when she looked back on it all in her later years, she had no regrets either.
Another thing about Pope’s story that fascinates me, and that I feel ought to be reinforced, is how she derived her inspiration from the achievements of another woman. Today, Women’s History Month serves to inspire women, and men, in part by highlighting the work of trailblazing women throughout the years. I think we tend to consider it a more of a modern-day movement. But nearly 150 years ago, well before the notion of such a concept, the impetus behind Pope’s pioneering ambition came from no less than another female pioneer. I think that’s really quite amazing.
Anyway, I’m going to stop here for today, but if you feel you’d like to read some more, I direct you to this excellent article penned by Boyde Beck and Adele Townshend in The Island Magazine (Fall/Winter 1993), a detailed account of the life and times of Georgina Fane Pope.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – I dunno ’bout you, but I’ve got me a real ragin’ case of turkey withdrawal. Just sayin’…