Hommage à nos fondatrices – Tribute to our founders 2. Cynthia Toman

A Tribute to Dr. Cynthia Toman (RN, BScN, MScN, PhD)

Dr. Sarah Glassford, University of Windsor

[La traduction française est accessibe ici]

Dr. Cynthia Toman began her working life as a Registered Nurse and concluded it as Canada’s pre-eminent historian of military nursing. I had the pleasure of a close association with her over two years near the end of her career (2007-2009), when she supervised my postdoctoral fellowship in affiliation with the University of Ottawa’s Nursing History Research Unit. As a postdoctoral supervisor she modelled many approaches that I subsequently strove to emulate in my dealings with students and younger colleagues in a variety of academic and professional settings. She was generous with her time and energy when it came to offering advice, feedback, and support, and managed to be kind, funny, and sympathetic while also maintaining an appropriately professional distance. (This is no surprise, really, since these are also the qualities of a good nurse!) Cynthia modelled collegiality by treating me with the respect due to a peer (albeit one in training) and taking an interest in my work, while expecting the same in return. She connected me with all kinds of professional development opportunities and encouraged me to say “yes” when chances to publish or give talks came my way, but also encouraged me to maintain a life outside of the academy and to vigilantly patrol its boundaries. I grew from a timid PhD graduate to an increasingly confident junior scholar and university teacher under her upbeat, encouraging brand of mentoring, which was just what I needed at the time. She has remained a supportive colleague and friend ever since.

Dr. Toman’s two monographs, dealing respectively with First World War and Second World War Canadian military nurses, instantly became authoritative go-to resources on those topics. They continue to be invaluable assets to students, scholars, and the wider public seeking to understand both military health care provision and women’s experiences of the two world wars in a Canadian context. The quality of her historical work – not only these monographs but also a host of journal articles and book chapters – is attested to by the awards it has garnered, including the Governor General’s Gold Medal for her PhD dissertation at the University of Ottawa in 2003, the Teresa E. Christy Distinguished Writing Award given by the American Association for the History of Nursing in 2004, and the Canadian Committee on Women’s History’s Hilda B. Neatby Award for best English-language article in 2008. 

Beyond her obvious interest in wartime military nursing, Toman’s historical research interests encompass the nitty-gritty details of nursing practice, nursing workforce issues, and medical technologies as they relate to nursing (including blood transfusion, delegated medical acts, and scientific management and efficiency in nursing contexts). Yet she has been equally intrigued by the ways that society and culture affect the lived experiences of nurses and the evolution of nursing as a profession. The result is a body of work that brings to life not only what it was like to do nursing work in a given place and time, but also what it meant to be a nurse and how “nurse” as a professional identity intersected with other markers of identity such as gender, class, race, and nationality. Reviewers repeatedly employ words such as “painstaking,” “meticulous,” “rigorous,” “complex,” and “diligent” to describe the archival research that undergirds her work, while equally singing the praises of her writing skills, calling her work “nuanced,” “engaging,” “sensitive,” “moving,” and “compelling.” These twin strengths, when added to the truly pioneering and significant nature of her subjects, will ensure that her published work continues to be read, enjoyed, and cited for many years to come.

“Historian” is only one of many hats Toman has worn along the course of her career path. Before becoming a historian and university professor, she worked at various points as a critical care nurse, cardiovascular nurse, community nurse (including time spent nursing in Puerto Rico in affiliation with the US Office of Economic Opportunity), camp nurse, and clinical trial research coordinator. She was also actively involved in nursing research before she turned to history, pursuing interests in patient education, heart failure education and counselling, continuity of care, and activity progression post-Myocardial Infarction. Without question, Toman’s years of front-line nursing have given her special insights into the historical nurses who later became the subjects of her research: she knows firsthand that nursing can be not only rewarding and meaningful but also dirty, exhausting (both emotionally and physically), and frustrating. These experiences clearly shape her portrayals of the military nurses whom contemporary (and subsequent) authors have tended to depict as one-dimensional angels or heroines. Toman’s nurses get angry, get messy, have fun, and break rules. They also work incredibly hard and take pride in their nursing skills.

During her years with the NHRU Toman’s ability to connect personal experience of nursing with the questions posed about historical nursing made her an effective teacher of student nurses and nursing professionals. While keen to encourage anyone with an interest in nursing history, Toman nevertheless had a special affinity for teaching and mentoring new nurse-historians, and devoted significant time and energy to developing nursing history courses and practicum opportunities that would help them develop their historical interest and archival research skills. Her students at the University of Ottawa, where she taught in the School of Nursing and held a cross-appointment in the Department of History, as well as those who came into her orbit through conferences, practicums, and other means, reaped the benefits.

As a teacher and mentor, as a scholarly historian, and as a co-founder and director of the Nursing History Research Unit at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Cynthia Toman raised the bar for both nurse-historians and historians of nursing in Canada. That she did so while remaining a humble, hard-working, genuinely likeable human being with a fun sense of humour is all the more remarkable. I admire her greatly.

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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