Dr. Meryn Stuart – First Director of the Nursing History Research Unit
By Jayne Elliott and Cynthia Toman
[La traduction française est accessible ici]
To fully-fledged historians of nursing as well as to nurses interested in their history, Meryn Stuart is recognized as a pioneer in the development of nursing history in Canada. Over the course of her academic career of twenty-plus years, she held onto her vision of what an understanding of nursing history could mean to current issues facing nurses and nursing, as well as to what it could contribute to the history of women, medicine, and healthcare in general. It was through her advocacy and strong-willed desire that the Nursing History Research Unit came about, and she worked with Associated Medical Services (AMS) to establish it as the first academic unit dedicated to the study of nursing and healthcare in Canada. In 2008 she was honoured by the Canadian Nurses Association with a Centennial Award that recognized the positive impact of her work on the profession.
Meryn left her career as a public health nurse in the 1980s to undertake her doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania under well-known historian Charles Rosenberg. There, she developed strong friendships with other nurse historians who helped nurture her own interests and later facilitated international linkages among other historians in the same field. Meryn re-joined the faculty of the School of Nursing on her return but also took on the task of Associate Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies from 2001-2003. There she managed its graduate program and honed her skills in feminist collaboration that resulted in several publications with others.
Meryn grounded her early research in what she knew best – a history of public health nursing in early 20th century Ontario. The articles that came out of her thesis ‒ Ideology and Experience: Public Health Nursing and the Ontario Child Welfare Project, 1920-25 and Shifting Professional Boundaries: Gender Conflict in Public Health, 1920-1925 – remain classics in the field and paved the way for a feminist analysis of nursing work. Other publications followed as she pursued research interests in the history of nursing education and military nursing.
From her position as Associate Professor, Meryn was a forceful, tireless and politically astute advocate for the history of nursing. She was successful in her struggle to have a history option included in the graduate nursing program at U of O. She mentored graduate students indicating an interest in including nursing history in their theses – no easy task as most had not had any training in historical research. She had been a founding member of the Canadian Association for the History of Nursing, and now encouraged students to present their work at annual conferences and to apply for scholarships the association offered. She continued to collaborate generously with other scholars both inside and outside the field of nursing.
Some might say that the stars lined up in order for the Unit to come into existence ‒ and it is true that Bill Seidelman, CEO of AMS at that time, was a huge supporter of nursing history. But it was Meryn who laid the groundwork, working hard to convince AMS board members of the importance of understanding the history behind current issues affecting nursing. In her June 2004 presentation to them she effectively demonstrated how knowledge of the history of nursing education contributed to a greater understanding of the issues facing nursing leaders as the nursing curriculum moved into the universities. Meryn recruited Cynthia, one of her graduate students, and together they developed a wide-ranging proposal for the Unit, identifying the four pillars of research, education, publications, and outreach that are still relevant today. She fought strenuously – and successfully ‒ for a full-time research associate position to support the development and operation of the Unit. She insisted on the university matching the endowment portion of the AMS grant and this wise decision has secured financial stability for the Unit. Immediately recognizing that bringing Marie-Claude into the Unit would greatly help to bridge the great divide that existed between Anglophone and Francophone historians, she facilitated her entry as a faculty member. In short, the guidance that Meryn provided as the first Director of the Unit has ensured a strong foundation on which current members can continue to build.
The former administrator of the NHRU, Jayne Elliott now holds the position of senior research member and adjunct professor in the Unit. Her doctoral research investigated the history of the Red Cross outpost hospitals in Ontario, and subsequent research interests focused on the history of rural hospitals and rural and remote nursing. She is currently exploring the experiences of physicians who cared for Canadian troops in Germany during the early Cold War period.
Cynthia Toman is a retired associate professor from the School of Nursing of the University of Ottawa. Her research focused on the history of First and Second World War nurses.