Best of the Rest of the CSHM/CAHN Conference I: Hallett’s Hannah Lecture

In Conferences, History of medicine, Nursing by Steve Palmer0 Comments

As the conference has now ended with me having posted exactly three reports, I guess I have to declare this effort at semi-live blogging a semi-failure, but I’ll try to rescue it from that fate and pronounce it a semi-success with a couple of final posts.

First and foremost, the joint conference itself has to be declared a full-out, knock-down, one hundred percent SUCCESS.  There was really not a false note, starting with the organization, which was seamless and enabling of superb exchanges within and across the two societies.

I’ve organized conferences before, including one with a different national society under the banner of the Congress and I know how incredibly involved and difficult it is to make it work, and ironically making it work perfectly means making the organization as invisible as possible.  Though the organizers, Professors Marie-Claude Thifault and Isabelle Perreault were publicly and appropriately appreciated for their work a number of times during the event, I want to do it again in print.  At the business meeting of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine, James Moran, the out-going president, slipped Freudianly — or did he? — in referring to the treasurer, Isabelle Perrault, as “the treasure”.  And I am now going to follow his lead and intentionally inscribe both Marie-Claude and Isabelle under that category in this Canadian Treasury.

So many possible highlights to dwell on, but I guess the logical place to start would be the first of our two keynote talks — the Hannah Lecture of the Canadian Association for the History of Nursing.IMG_1060

Christine Hallett’s Hannah lecture, “Le Petit paradis des blessés: Nurses, Nursing and Internationalism on the Western Front (1915-1918),” took a classic theme — almost an original problematic (along with Nightingalism) — in the history of nursing, and artfully turned it inside out.  This was a beautifully crafted, at once literary and real evaluation of nursing practice at a French mobile surgical hospital where women from Britain, the US and Canada did tough nursing work in close quarters near the Belgian front.

In a nutshell, Hallett took four published sources written by women who treated horrendously wounded male soldiers in the 160-bed facility.  Introducing her full house of 80 to each nurse writer with a mix of sensitive biographies and substantial excerpts from the books of varied genres, Hallett explored the question of how these invaluable yet unreliable texts reveal “the vagaries of the historical record”.  The texts intersected one another in remarkable ways and episodes, with the motives, natures, and actions of the same historical characters represented in strikingly different manner by each woman.

The glamorous Chicago socialite, Mary Borden, author of The Forbidden Zone, key to establishing the hospital despite not being a trained nurse, was part of a coterie of modernist writers that included Ford Maddox Ford.  Ellen La Motte’s The Backwash of War, published in 1916 in the US, was banned in Britain and France (and then later banned in the US when America enters the war) due to what Gertrude Stein described as its “aggressive assault on the reader’s consciousness” that saw only “human weakness and monumental waste”.  I was mesmerized by Hallett’s presentation of this complex, early graduate of Johns Hopkins’ leading-edge Nursing program (1902).

But if there was ever a keynote tailor-made for a specific society, this was it because of Hallett’s third major subject, St. John, New Brunswick’s Agnes Warner.  From a prominent family, in the final years of the 19th century Warner graduated from Natural Sciences at McGill and an elite US school of nursing.  Her self-effacing letters home to her mother and sisters were collected and published (without her knowledge) in 1916 as My Beloved Poilus.  Though not as compelling to feminist cultural scholars as Borden and La Motte, Warner is in the end the heroine of Hallett’s piece, sincere and matter of fact, entirely — one might say professionally — absorbed in a job at which she was extremely competent.  She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, though her book would fall out of fashion and her contribution to the history of nursing into relative obscurity (until now!).

Well, that’s the best I can do.  But those who missed the delightful Manchester tones of Hallett’s talk, with subtle hints of my current Netflix faves, Scott and Bailey, are encouraged to delve into her recent book, Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War (OUP, 2014).  The book hardly encompasses the range of this enormously talented Professor of Nursing History at the University of Manchester and Chair of the UK Association for the History of Nursing.  For a smack in the gob, visit her professional page at:

Once there, you can click on a video of Dr. Hallett talking about her research, and even see her giving a lecture.

But with so many other highlights to cover, and so little time, I’ll close this post off and try to organize one final omnibus Best of the Rest II.





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