Hommage à nos fondatrices – Tribute to our founders. 3. Jayne Elliott

Jayne Elliott

A Tribute to Dr. Jayne Elliott

By Kristin Burnett

[La traduction française est accessible ici]

When I was asked to write about Dr. Jayne Elliott’s contributions to the history of nursing and the Nursing History Research Unit (NHRU) at the University of Ottawa, I was honored to be given the opportunity.  Over the last fifteen years, I have had the privilege of working with Jayne in a number of capacities: as co-editor in Chief of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History from 2011 to 2015, on various committees for both the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine and the Canadian Association for the History of Nursing, and in relation to the NHRU. During this period, I learned a great deal from Jayne (unfortunately, not her organizational acumen), and I came to consider her a close friend and mentor. Jayne serves as an exemplar of kindness and generosity towards junior scholars and students that I always strive to emulate. Indeed, all the women at the NHRU were incredibly supportive and provided me with a model of collegiality that, to this day, I endeavor to follow. I am eternally grateful for the support and encouragement that I received from the NHRU, first as a graduate student and later as a faculty member. For many of us, the NHRU and the amazing women that worked there, provided a feminist network of support and engagement with nursing history that was unavailable elsewhere.  For this we are deeply appreciative.

Like many historians of nursing, Jayne began her career as a practicing nurse. She graduated from the Atkinson School of Nursing at the Toronto Western Hospital and worked in hospitals in Toronto, Kingston, and Yellowknife. While Jayne’s nursing career ended in Winnipeg as her family grew, she returned to university following their move to Ottawa. Although Jayne did not intend to become a historian of nursing when she began her PhD in history in 1997, she described her shift to focus on Red Cross outpost nurses as “feeling like she had come home.”  Jayne’s scholarship makes important contributions to the field. Her work on Red Cross nursing stations and small hospitals in Ontario, one of which she had even worked at as part of her nursing training, encourages historians to consider the role that space plays outside of hospital settings and the multiple and shifting identities that nurses occupy. Indeed, Jayne suggests that at times nursing offered women who did not want to live conventional lives the opportunity to do so, especially in small and rural communities. Jayne’s scholarship illuminates the links between the architecture of nursing outposts and the social and professional lives of the nurses who worked there. The ways in which the space of nursing stations was structured both informed and reflected contemporary public health practices but also limited and made more public the private lives of nurses in rural and northern regions. While working at nursing stations may have made it possible for women to avoid marriage and access resources unavailable to them in large cities, the domestic space of nurses’ homes frequently became enfolded into the curative work of the nursing station. This work serves as an important addition to understanding the breadth and scope of women’s healing work as both separate from and part of their professional identities.

Any tribute to Jayne must also include a discussion of her work with the NHRU. Before proceeding, however, and in order to ensure I got the details correct and that they properly reflected how Jayne felt about her work, it was important for me to have a conversation with her. Typical of Jayne’s self-effacing nature, she agreed to participate only if any discussion of the NHRU acknowledged the founding and guiding work of both Drs. Meryn Stuart and Cynthia Toman. In particular, she wanted it noted that one of the primary goals of the NHRU had been to bring together people who had formerly worked in isolation as a community to study the history of nursing.

Under the leadership of Dr. Meryn Stuart the NHRU was established in June 2005. Shortly thereafter, Jayne was brought in to help see the vision of the unit’s co-founders brought to fruition. As the Unit’s first administrator, Jayne was involved in a broad range of projects. This summer I spoke to Jayne about her work with the NHRU and I have included excerpts from our conversation below that best reflect how she both perceived her role with the Unit and the value she believed the unit contributed to the history of nursing specifically and medical history more generally:

What did you value most about working with the NHRU?

Probably the greatest highlight was the opportunity to create something new, to shape the direction of the unit, get it off the ground.  The work was so varied and especially in the first three years, we were working to fulfil all the activities Cynthia and Meryn had written into the proposal.  We [Meryn, Cynthia, and Jayne] all got along well so that made coming to work fun and we made a good team. Things like designing the website and the brochure, etc., allowed me to be creative, and I got to do so many different things that I had never done before.

The opportunity to work with students was wonderful. I never wanted to teach with my PhD but I enjoyed one-on-one with students.  Perhaps the most satisfying experience was working with German nursing student, Jette Lange, who started out several years ago as a summer intern for Dr. Thomas Foth, while she was finishing her Masters. Now she has completed her PhD. 

What do you think is the Unit’s greatest legacy?

I really think the support the unit has been able to give to all kinds of students interested in doing or learning about nursing history – undergraduates to graduates, especially nursing students but also those in the interdisciplinary health stream, as well as history students.  Student support has been one of the strongest mandates of the Unit over the years, and now with Marie-Claude [Thifault] as director, Francophone students have had even more opportunities. 

There are several other « units » in the nursing school but the NHRU was the most active unit in the nursing school and for awhile, the Unit ran 6 or 7 seminars yearly to which any student could present or attend. Sometimes students not affiliated with the unit presented their work. 

During her tenure at the Unit, Jayne worked on many projects that contributed both to the scholarship of nursing history and built capacity for historical research outside of the discipline. A Hannah conference, held to inaugurate the establishment of the Unit, led to the publication of Place and Practice in Canadian Nursing History. Co-edited by Jayne, Meryn, and Cynthia the collection complicated the contexts in which nurses worked and the range of healing work that women performed.  Jayne’s article in this collection looked at the letters of Louise de Kiriline, a Red Cross outpost nurse in northern Ontario, better known for her work with the Dionne Quintuplets. Her examination of de Kiriline’s letters reminded nursing historians to look beyond nursing work and “to pay attention to what identities beyond that of their professional identity nurses considered important.” Jayne also supervised and contributed to a volume on the history of the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) that was developed for its 100th anniversary and is available as an e-book on the CNA website. In 2011, the Unit held a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded conference entitled “Telling Tales,” which brought together graduate students working on the histories of nursing and healing to help them develop their publication profile. The NHRU also worked to engage non-historian nurses in nursing history through the organization of summer research practicums, annual spring lectures, a workshop on nursing films, and an annual nursing history week contest that was held during Nurses week.  

Jayne’s contributions to the history of medicine go far beyond her scholarship. Jayne has mentored undergraduate and graduate students, as well as offered support and advice for many junior faculty and burgeoning scholars in the history of medicine. My fondest memories of Jayne are the conversations we had when we co-edited the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. Although we talked about journal business, these discussions also allowed me the opportunity to get to know Jayne. She was generous with her time and support, and was instrumental at helping me to complete the final revisions on my first monograph. At that time I had also just become a single parent, and Jayne regularly helped me figure things out. Nor am I the only person who benefited from Jayne’s support and scholarly expertise; there are many of us who owe Jayne a debt of gratitude for reading and commenting on our work. Indeed, I would argue that one of Jayne’s most invaluable contributions to the discipline is her time, patience, and expertise that she generously made available to others.  Thank you.

Kristin Burnett is an Associate Professor in the Department of Indigenous Learning at Lakehead University. She did her BA and MA in History at the University of Calgary and completed her PhD at York University in 2006. Following a brief stint as a SSHRC post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, Burnett came to work at Lakehead University in the Department of History in January of 2007 before transferring to the Department of Indigenous Learning in August of 2012.

Burnett’s research interests can broadly be defined as: Indigenous history, race and colonization, settler studies, women and gender history, the social history of health and medicine, and western Canadian history. She has published articles on Indigenous women’s healing practices, focusing specifically on childbirth and birth control; the genesis of colonial health care regimes in Treaty 7 communities; and representations of Native Americans in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Her current research projects investigate the relationship between health, race, and settlement in western Canada and food sovereignty and colonialism in northern First Nations communities.


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