Jessie Murdoch of Pilkington became famous nurse

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.|Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Early in 2004, when I was gathering names that might be included in a Wellington County Hall for Fame, I was struck by the small number of women who are well remembered in the history of this county.

During the coming months I want to make some of those lives better known to the public. This week I am beginning with Jessie Murdoch, who achieved fame as a nursing administrator.

In 1899 Jessie Murdoch of Pilkington took a train to Stratford and enrolled in the nursing school there associated with Stratford General Hospital. It was the beginning of one the most notable careers of any of Wellington County’s expatriates.

Janet McGavin Murdoch, known always as Jessie, was born in 1873 to Frank Murdoch and his wife Mary. The Murdochs, of obvious Scottish origin, turn up in various parts of Wellington.

William Murdoch was the original patriarch, coming to Canada in the 1840s, and working on farms in Guelph Township before buying his own farm in Pilkington. He died in 1861. His wife, Janet McGavin, survived until 1876.

The couple had three daughters and five sons. All were born in Scotland, and all settled in Wellington County.

Frank was the youngest son, born in 1839. He married Mary Hunter, of the famous cattle-breeding Hunter family in north Pilkington.

Frank and Mary took up a farm a couple of miles south of Elora. Jessie Murdoch was the second of their five daughters. With no brothers in the family, the girls had to help out with all the farm work, including the heaviest chores.

As a consequence, they all developed a capacity for hard work, and at the same time, a desire to get away from the farm. The parents desperately wanted sons. They even gave the youngest two feminine variants of masculine names: Robena and Alexina. As they grew up, the girls learned to do everything a boy would have done on a 19th century farm.

Jessie’s elder sister Maggie left home first. She trained as a nurse in Chicago, and went on to a career in nursing. She inspired Jessie to follow a similar path, but Jessie took her time in deciding on a nursing career.

In the 1890s, after high school in Elora, she moved to Toronto for a time to keep house for an aunt, but returned to Pilkington to help her father on the farm.

She was 26 when she finally made her move, and enrolled at the Stratford General nursing school. Though Stratford boasted barely 10,000 population, the training school for nurses there was among the best in the province.

The hospital, built in 1891, had attracted a handful of outstanding doctors, most of them trained in top medical schools in the United States and England.

The schedule there was not one for the archetypical Victorian shrinking violet. The young women had to work a 12-hour day in the wards, gaining practical experience, then sit through lectures and seminars in the evenings.

Jessie’s maturity–she was seven or eight years older than most of the class–gave her the strength to cope with the challenges. As well, years of work on the farm had prepared her for long hours. Equipped with a forceful personality, she did not hesitate to ask questions and to make suggestions to both staff and doctors, some of whom felt a little intimidated by her.

When Jessie graduated from the three-year course in 1902, she was qualified to work in any hospital in the country. Jessie, though, was not interested in a career in a hospital ward, at least not yet.

On the recommendation of one of her instructors, the Post Graduate School of Medicine, affiliated with New York University, accepted her for more training. The feeling among the doctors at Stratford was that she had outstanding organizational abilities, and would make a superb nursing supervisor.

The ink on her graduate diploma was still wet when, in 1904, Dr. William C. Gorgas of the United States Army invited her to join the staff at a hospital at Ancon, Panama. It had been established by the French 20 years earlier to treat workers on the Panama Canal project.

Dr. Gorgas, a career army surgeon with the rank of Colonel, was a sometime associate of Dr. Walter Reed, the malaria expert. The United States Army, which had taken over the canal project after years of floundering by French and American consortiums, wanted to eliminate the yellow fever and malaria that had claimed thousands of men making the first attempts to build the canal.

Dr. Gorgas’s orders were simple: set up the best hospital possible, and get rid of the yellow fever and malaria.

It is probable that Gorgas encountered Jessie Murdoch at the Post Graduate School, where he gave lectures. In any case, the assignment struck her as an irresistible challenge, and in July 1904 she arrived in Panama with a handful of other nurses.

She was startled when she met the head nurse, sent there a month earlier by Col. Gorgas: Eugenie Hibbard was also a Canadian, from St. Catharines.

At that point the hospital presented a bleak prospect. There were two French doctors and some nursing nuns of the Sisters of Charity. All had contracted malaria. At night, Jessie recalled, mosquitoes were so thick in the hospital that one nurse had to use a fan to blow them away while another worked.

Jessie came up with a new method. She wrapped herself and the other nurses with bandages soaked in citronella. Meanwhile, Col. Gorgas began his assault on the mosquitoes, draining stagnant water, spraying, and pouring mineral oil on nearby bodies of water. It took him two years to get the insects, and the diseases they spread, under control.

Both Col. Gorgas and Miss Hubbard were impressed with Jessie’s quick mind and organizational ability, and her capacity for hard work that she had acquired back on the farm in Pilkington. In the fall of 1904, they promoted her to assistant nursing superintendent.

The next few months were the most challenging of her time in Panama. Conditions in the hospital were primitive. There were language difficulties in communicating with staff. The nursing sisters, who were kind-hearted but poorly trained, did not approve of the screens that the Canadian women installed on the windows and doors, or the screen-covered enclosures they used to isolate yellow fever patients.

Meanwhile, Jessie had to order supplies and plan for a major expansion for the facility. In December, spirits were at their lowest, when a couple of the newly-arrived American nurses died from yellow fever.

A short time later, there was sad news from home. Her father, Frank Murdoch, disappointed that Jessie and her sisters had deserted the farm, sold out, and purchased a retirement house in Guelph. The night before he was to move, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 66.

Despite this low point in her life, Jessie stuck to her tasks. By early 1905, shipments of supplies started to arrive, and construction crews improved the facilities.

In an article she wrote in 1913, Jessie Murdoch recalled that early period: “Before two years were over we were surrounded by all the modern comforts and conveniences. Telephones buzzed, electric lights were flashed on, and we recognized ourselves as only a part of an ideal community. It would be hard for anyone today to believe that Ancon had ever gone through a pioneer stage.”

Jessie Murdoch faced many challenges during that period, in building and outfitting a modern hospital from such a meagre beginning. And there were more to come. When Eugenie Hibbard left Ancon in 1906, Jessie was her obvious successor as nursing supervisor. A year later the facility had expanded further, and at times housed 1,500 patients, hospitalized with tropical diseases, injuries, and various ailments that they had brought with them. The workforce came from more than 30 countries, and many of the labourers had never seen a doctor. Jessie held one of the most onerous nursing jobs anywhere, and she was only in her early 30s.

In 1912, after eight years in Panama, Jessie received a letter from a doctor who had recently worked with her. He had just been appointed medical director of her alma mater, the Post-Graduate School in New York, and he wanted her to join him as chief of nursing. With the Panama Canal project nearing completion, and the hospital winding down, she accepted.

The pace in New York was far more relaxed, but there were challenges there as well, particularly in 1917, when the First World War created a sudden shortage of qualified nurses. She was able to put together a compressed training program to deal with the crisis.

In New York, Jessie played a prominent role in various professional organizations. Her forceful personality and her accomplishments had made her a recognized name in east coast medical circles.

In her mid-40s, she was at the peak of her energy and ability. Another challenge was not long in coming.

(Next week: Another phase to the remarkable career of Jessie Murdoch.)

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 21, 2005.

Thorning Revisited