“To nurse, the hands cannot be divided from the head and the heart” – Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie
Elizabeth “Beth” Lawrie Smellie was born March 22, 1884 at her family home on Pearl Street in Port Arthur, Ontario. Her father was a prominent local doctor, political figure, and business man, and it was from him that she inherited her missionary zeal and
After graduating from Central School in Fort William, she defied her father’s wishes and applied to Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School in Baltimore, intent on pursuing a career in nursing.
Upon completion of her training, she returned to Fort William in 1909 and took on the role of Night Supervisor at McKellar General Hospital, followed by a term in Detroit as a private nurse.
When war was declared in 1914, Elizabeth applied for service and in January of 1915 she received a telegram from Ottawa confirming that she had been selected for duty with the medical service in England.
As a Nursing Sister with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, she was first posted to a temporary military hospital at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire in the estate of Lady Astor. She continued to serve as a Nursing Sister in the regions of Taplow, England and Le Treport, France before becoming the Matron of Moore Barracks Hospital in Shorncliffe, England where thousands of Canadian soldiers were treated.
In recognition of her various despatches and distinguished service, Elizabeth was decorated with the Royal Red Cross First Class Award which was presented to her in October of 1917 by King George V at Buckingham Palace.
Within a year of Elizabeth receiving the Royal Red Cross Medal, the Great War ended, however, in no way did Elizabeth’s nursing career or humanitarian spirit conclude.
She returned to Canada and was appointed to be Assistant to the Matron -in-Chief of the Canadian Army Medical Corps Nursing Service in Ottawa. In 1920, she requested to be demobilized so that she could go to post- graduate school in Boston and study Public Health Nursing. Upon completion of this program, she served as Assistant Director of the School of Nursing at McGill University, and also held a part-time position as Field Supervisor for the Victorian Order of Nurses in Montreal. This paved the way for the next milestone in her career. In 1924, she became the Chief Superintendent of the Victorian Order of Nurses of Canada ; a role she relished for the next sixteen years.
By 1940, World War II was well underway, and Elizabeth was called back to service as the Matron -In-Chief of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps Nursing Service. She was also instrumental in organizing the Canadian Women’s Army Corps which saw women contribute to the war in positions previously held only by men. In 1944 she made her most significant mark in history by being honoured with the rank of Colonel – the first female to reach this position in the Canadian Army.
Following WWII, Elizabeth left the Army and returned to her Superintendent position with the Victorian Order of Nurses where she remained until her retirement.
She died March 5, 1968, and is buried at Riverview Cemetery in Thunder Bay, ON.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth received numerous awards, medals, and accolades. Recognition of her outstanding dedication, commitment, and professionalism in nursing and humanitarian efforts can be found locally and internationally.
In June of 1975, a plaque was unveiled in her honour at the McKellar Hospital site. This plaque has since been moved to Waverley Park in Port Arthur, near the war cenotaph.
On June 17, 2000 Smellie was featured on a postage stamp with Pauline Vanier as part of Canada Post’s Millennium Collection of Humanitarians and Peacekeepers.
Learn more about Smellie’s life and experience through the following: