New Book: “The Lamp Was Heavy: Nova Scotia Nurses-in-Training in the 1950s”


Available for Purchase at the annual CAHN conference in Halifax!


A couple of years ago I was reminiscing about my student nursing days in Yarmouth School of Nursing, a three-year diploma program when I wrote a small, unedited recounting of those difficult times. Suddenly at that time, I wanted to reach out to others who had experienced the same kinds of exploitation of students in small-town hospitals in Nova Scotia during the same era. It was then I found a woman from Amherst, at a Nursing History of Nova Scotia meeting and we began talking. She too had graduated in the 1950s. While I had graduated in 1959 I realized that student nurses’ experiences began to change in the 1960s, albeit slowly. But, during the 1950s student nurses’ lives remained the same as past decades- we were still used as a source of free labour.

Loving storytelling as I do, two years ago I began re-reading some of the transcripts of the oral histories I had done with about 30 nurses who worked in Nova Scotia in the 1920s and 1930s and even up to the 1940s. In 1980 as a Dalhousie School of Nursing faculty I was given a small grant from the Registered Nurses Association of Nova Scotia for this project. These oral histories are stored in the Nova Scotia Archives and needless to say the women are no longer living. Various graduate and undergraduate nursing, history, and women’s studies students have used them for research purposes and, some have given me a few digitized. It was a great pastime while reminiscing as I was waiting for a hip replacement. After a while it dawned on me that no one seemed to be doing much to preserve the stories of the 1950s experience, other than the little booklet I had written and did nothing with except share with friends. These are all stories that make up an integral part of Nova Scotia history and even more importantly they are the history of nursing which is mainly about women, and even more significantly they are about the voices of older women which have always been silent!

So, it began. I wasn’t particularly interested in student nurses from the larger hospitals even though they shared some of the same experiences, but those students had more resources at their disposal, and more assistance in terms of med students, interns and residents, while those in small hospitals had responsibilities that were often the domain of doctors in training. Yet, I knew that many experiences were the same as those of student nurses everywhere in Canada and the US in those days because of the lack of job opportunities for graduate nurses. So, writing about the history of nursing students was not just a local endeavour. In 1986 I had the idea to develop the Canadian Association for the History of Nursing in 1986 so I thought I knew a few things about nursing history and, what I did know was that we were exploited and used, often shabbily. Furthermore, in spite of myself, the stories included affiliations at the larger hospitals so there is a chapter about them in the book as well, and many have told me that the experiences in the larger hospitals resembled ours.

Because of being a member of the History of Nursing Society of Nova Scotia and connections with others who knew of the history of hospitals in NS, I found that there were 12 schools of nursing outside the city of Halifax and Dartmouth in the 1950s. So, I slowly tracked down, one by one, an older woman who had trained in each of these small hospitals and also one from the 1940s and one from the 1960s in order to track changes, if any. We shared conversations about our mutual experiences in ‘training’. The women seemed very happy to hear from me as we talked and reminisced about ‘those days’. It was very powerful for us all, teasing our memories of those three years.

At first, I thought I would collate their stories and insert the photos they had sent me which I had scanned. At least there would be a documentation of our lives for those three years. However, the idea for a book slowly emerged and so it began. The towns represented are Yarmouth, Windsor, Antigonish, Amherst, New Glasgow, New Waterford, Glace Bay, Sydney, and North Sydney. The support from the women in the book was amazing. Photos and other memorabilia, such as rings, pins were sent to me to be included as photos in the document. Time passed and eventually, I finished the book. Back and forth I had sent them copies of what they had said or written to me. They wrote back, or called, or emailed me. Copyright permissions were tedious. The photos were old and faded. I think they thought I would never finish, but I did!

It was then that I knew I could not accept payment for a book which had become ‘our’ stories but that I had to give back something to the profession that had provided me with privileges of a career which I had come to love. At the same time, I discovered Sara Corning. She became my passion. Her story is not only Nova Scotian and Canadian, but she was a ‘Yarmouthian’, AND, a statue is to be erected in her honour in Yarmouth! YES! This is where the proceeds would go- to honour this humanitarian, Canadian heroine, and nurse, under the auspices of our NS Nursing History Society. In this era of taking down statues of unsavoury men, we need to produce statues of phenomenal women. Those who buy this not overly large, $20 book will be contributing to the Yarmouth Sara Corning Society, either through Chapters, a few independent bookstores, or directly from me (if local). These women stories are interesting for not only nurses, but the general public will also understand the struggles that student nurses had throughout the ages. If every member would buy a book or two or more I will eventually sell the 500 I had to buy from the publisher.


Sara Corning was born in Chegoggin, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, March 16, 1872, and died in Yarmouth,  May 5, 1969.

At age 24 Corning trained as a nurse in New Hampshire (the Yarmouth School of Nursing did not originate until 1913). She worked in New England for almost twenty years. In 1917 she returned to Nova Scotia to help victims of the Halifax Explosion.

At age 46, Sara Corning joined the US Red Cross during the First World War and signed on with the Near East Relief. In 1919 she arrived in a small Turkish village to take charge of an orphanage. Over the next decade, she helped rescue and care for thousands of Armenian and Greek orphans, victims of the 1915-1923 Armenian genocide and Greek massacres, including during the Greek-Turkish massacres. In the Republic of Armenia, she worked among hundreds of thousands of starving refugees who had typhoid or cholera. Most mornings she would gather babies lefts by desperate parents. The stories of this heroine are vast. She rescued hundreds of children trapped inside schools; she established new orphanages and ran one herself. She adopted five girls and funded their education. For her bravery, King George II of Greece awarded her the Knight’s Silver Cross of the Order of Redeemer, one of the country’s highest honours. The stories of the sufferings from the Armenian Genocide and Greek massacre cannot be recounted here, but Corning’s contribution was that of a great humanitarian.

Sara Corning is the namesake to the Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education in Toronto. In recognition of her selfless work, in 2017, she was awarded posthumously the “Outstanding Canadian” award in Toronto.

Please google Sara Corning for more information. I can’t begin to write more about her as there is so much to tell. Please inform your friends about this outstanding nurse. Her nursing career was that of a heroine that has been recognized by Armenians and Greeks, and by the country at large.

Please buy the book to support the Yarmouth Sara Corning Society.