The Early Years of the NHRU – Les premières années de l’URHN

Appel à communications : Colloque annuel de l'Association canadienne pour  l'histoire du Nursing – Centre d'histoire des régulations sociales

Looking Back on the Early Years of the NHRU and Its Founders

Dr. Sarah Glassford, University of Windsor

[La traduction française est accessibe ici]

I arrived at what was then the Associated Medical Services (AMS) Nursing History Research Unit (NHRU) in July 2007 fresh from my PhD defence, as its first (I think?) postdoctoral fellow. At only two years old, the NHRU was still in its infancy at that time. I had only a passing acquaintance with the History of Nursing and History of Medicine scholarly communities, and no nurse training, so I was not sure what to expect from a history cluster in a School of Nursing. Coming from an Arts and Humanities background it was odd to know I would have an office down the hall from rooms where student nurses learned practical skills, in a building attached to a large hospital complex. A member of my doctoral committee and a couple of PhD peers, however, assured me that I would be in very good hands, and my email contact with the unit through the SSHRC application process was friendly and encouraging. The NHRU turned out to be a great little outpost of history in a sea of health sciences, and a wonderfully supportive context in which to make the transition from student to professional.

Upon finally meeting unit co-founders and nurse-historians Dr. Meryn Stuart, Dr. Jayne Elliott, and Dr. Cynthia Toman in the unit’s little pod of offices in the Roger Guindon building (*I’m not sure I could successfully navigate its confusing corridors and stairwells anymore!), my initial impressions were of a diverse set of personalities: blunt, suffer-no-fools Meryn; soft-spoken Cynthia; briskly efficient Jayne. I wasn’t entirely wrong but, as usual, first impressions revealed only a small part of the larger picture. I soon realized this tight-knit trio had honed their effectiveness as a team to the point where they seemed to have their own short-hand in conversation and email. I later learned that this nuanced understanding of each other’s strengths, weaknesses, interests, and approaches had emerged in part through the hard work of establishing a strong nursing history presence at the University of Ottawa and securing funding from AMS and the university to create the NHRU. There must have been occasional tensions or disagreements between the three of them, given that they worked so closely together, but if so these incidents never seemed to interrupt the smooth flow of the unit’s daily life.

By the time I arrived, Meryn, Cynthia, and Jayne were proud of what they had already accomplished in the unit’s first two years and had at least half a dozen projects on the go – but since all three of them were nearing retirement age, they were also thinking ahead to the future of the unit and the legacy they would leave. The addition of Marie-Claude Thifault to the ranks of nurse-historians in the School of Nursing was an important step already taken in this direction, securing both a smooth leadership transition as well as a stronger French-language basis for the bilingual unit. During my two years in the unit I watched Meryn, Cynthia, Jayne, and Marie-Claude focus on attracting graduate students, developing innovative courses and methods of course delivery, securing other postdoctoral fellows, and making connections with scholars in other disciplines at the university whose research revolved around the history of health and health care. All of this was done in addition to their various regular teaching, research, service, and/or administrative responsibilities. Perhaps it was simply a shared sense that the unit had to prove itself in its early days to justify its funding and/or ongoing university support, but I think the high degree of productivity was also a shared personal characteristic of these four scholars. They were people who got things done.

By the time my fellowship ended it was clear to me that the creation of the unit by the three founders was not a move to garner prestige or monopolize scarce resources, but rather the result of a real passion for grounding student nurses and the nursing profession in a sense of the past, while at the same time enriching the study of history by using nursing as a window into the histories of women, labour, health care, and society. The degree to which the NHRU has continued to grow and thrive since the departure of its three founders is therefore, in my opinion, a testament not only to the impressive efforts of their successors, but also to the solid groundwork the founders established. Meryn Stuart, Cynthia Toman, and Jayne Elliott conceived of a Nursing History Research Unit that would benefit not only themselves and their students, but also those who would follow them, and indeed the nursing profession at large – and they did all they could to build it that way.

Dr. Sarah Glassford is Archivist and Librarian at the Rare Books & Special Collections of the Leddy Library at the University of Windsor. 

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