Founded in 1905, Alberta was still a new province when the AAGN was established. Much of the province’s population was spread across rural communities and many homesteaders lived in poverty. In 1919, the newly formed Department of Public Health assigned the first two district nurses to serve communities in the Peace River area in northwestern Alberta. At that time, a community could apply for a nurse if it was isolated with no other medical service within 100 miles. The communities would select a committee to aid in the process of setting up a nursing district; they were responsible for housing the nurse and providing furnishings, water and fuel.
I would be tackling the biggest challenge of my life.”
Isabella Ranche (nee Thyne)
In the 1920s, the majority of the district nurses’ work centered on maternity and immunization. Many nurses had extra training in obstetrics or were encouraged to pursue this training elsewhere and then return to Alberta to work. Nursing districts were up to 325 square miles – almost as big as the size of Calgary today – and so remote that there were only rough tracks for travel. These nurses braved isolation and cold winters, and some commuted to and from patients by horse or sled.
Accidents on the farm and in the lumber camps gave me many patients, and considerable experience.”
Mary Sterritt (nee Conlin)
In 1924, travelling clinics were established to provide the people of remote areas with access to broader health services. Each clinical team included a doctor, a surgeon, two dentists, four nurses, medical and dental students, and two truck drivers. The area’s district nurse would complete a preliminary screening of the children in the district and suggest who needed to attend the clinic. The clinic would be set up for three days and everyone in the community would pitch in to help prepare.
In the spring and fall, a Nursing Director would visit each District Nurse and then advise the Department of Health on the needs of the community and whether to open new stations or close existing ones. Recruitment began to get more difficult and as areas developed, they began to gain access to hospitals and other medical services. The prevalence of District Nursing began to fade; however, the practice continued until the passing of the Nurses Act in 1951, and Health Units replaced the districts.