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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Lieutenant Mary Lillian Cameron - A Nursing Sister's Story

Date of Birth: December 8, 1894

Place of Birth: Canso, NS

Mother's Name: Laura Condon

Father's Name: Frederick A. Cameron

Date of Enlistment: May 22, 1917 at Montreal, PQ

Regimental Number: n/a

Rank: Lieutenant (Nursing Sister)

Force: Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC)

Name of Unit: No. 4 General Hospital (University of Toronto Unit)

Location of service: Canada & England

Occupation at Enlistment: Nurse

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. Fred A. Cameron, Canso, NS (father)
Mary Lillian Cameron was the oldest of three children born to Fred and Laura Cameron of Canso, NS.  Her father operated a general store in the small fishing port, while her mother's parents owned a similar enterprise in Guysborough.  A person with a keen interest in travel and adventure, Mary's life choices took her to places far beyond the small community where she was born.

Nursing Sister Mary Lillian Cameron.
Mary's journey began with her decision to enroll in a Montreal nursing school during the early months of World War I.  Upon graduation, it is not surprising that Mary chose to serve with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC).  Montreal was one of several Eastern Canadian military ports where soldiers departed for and returned from Europe.  As the war progressed and casualties spiraled, there was an increasing demand for nursing services.  The pay - $ 4.00 a day - was attractive, as was the opportunity to serve one's country in its time of need.  There was also the possibility of overseas service, bringing with it the opportunity to experience distant parts of the world.

In December 1916 and January 1917, Mary worked with 8th Field Ambulance CAMC at Montreal, possibly as part of her nursing training.  The experience may have piqued her interest, as Mary enlisted for 'home service' with CAMC on May 21, 1917.  Her age at the time - 22 years, five months - suggests that she had only recently completed her training, as nursing schools of the day accepted only women 21 years or older.

Mary spent the next nine months working in a Montreal military hospital, one of the city's seven wartime facilities that contained a total of over 900 beds.  Canadian medical services provided accommodations and convalescent homes for officers and men 'invalided from overseas' due to illness or injury.  The size of the CAMC's Canadian operations at war's end indicates the scope of its activities.  As of November 11, 1918, its 59 hospitals were providing medical care for 9,784 patients.

As with many young nurses who enlisted with the CAMC, Mary no doubt hoped to serve abroad.  In total, over 2500 Canadian women served overseas during World War I, one thousand of whom saw duty near combat zones in France or Belgium.  The remaining Nursing Sisters were stationed at various facilities in England, providing medical care for soldiers 'invalided' from stationary and general hospitals located on the continent.

Mary's opportunity arose the following year when she officially attested for overseas service on March 2, 1918 and departed for England shortly afterward.  Prior to leaving, she assigned $ 25 of her monthly salary to her mother, Mrs. Fred A. Cameron, Canso, NS.  On March 25, Lieutenant Mary Lillian Cameron was 'taken on strength' by the CAMC Depot England, pending posting to a general or stationary hospital.  Two weeks later, Mary was assigned to the nursing staff of No. 4 General Hospital, Basingstoke, Kent, England.
No. 4 General Hospital was one of four similar units organized by Canadian universities offering medical studies programs at the time of the war's outbreak.  Sponsored by the University of Toronto, it was officially created on March 25, 1915 and embarked for England two months later.  Personnel remained in England until mid-October 1915, when the unit was selected to provide medical services to Allied soldiers fighting in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The unit stopped briefly at Alexandria, Egypt before establishing operations at Salonika, Thessaloniki, Greece on November 9, 1915.  Six months later, the hospital relocated to nearby Kalamaria, where it maintained a general hospital until its departure on August 17, 1917.
Park Prewett Hospital (date unknown).
Upon returning to England, the unit assumed responsibility for the operation of a recently established 1040-bed general hospital, located on the grounds of Park Prewett Asylum for the Insane at Basingstoke, Kent.  No. 4 General Hospital remained in this location for the duration of the war.  On April 10, 1918, its war diary recorded the arrival of "sixteen Nursing Sisters… from C. A. M. C. Depot".  Mary Lillian Cameron was one of the new additions to the hospital's staff, which consisted of 31 Officers, 88 Nursing Sisters and 191 'other ranks'.

At the time of Mary's arrival, the facility was operating at approximately 70 % capacity.  Two factors combined to increase the workload as the events of 1918 unfolded.  As in previous years, fighting intensified with winter's end, as spring and summer weather made large-scale military action possible.  In addition, German forces launched a major assault on Allied positions in March 1918, part of a plan to achieve a final victory. 

As a result, casualties increased dramatically, resulting in a sharp rise in hospital admissions.  The hospital surpassed its capacity on April 23 when it accommodated 1046 patients, although numbers declined slightly the following week.  Throughout the month, staff ministered to a daily average of 798 patients, "principally surgical cases" from the battlefields of France.

Total patient numbers remained well above 900 throughout May 1918, reaching more than 1000 on several days late in the month.  The daily average of 953 patients indicates the increasing demands placed on staff as "convoys from France [arrived] daily - many severely wounded cases."  The situation was complicated by the fact that ten Nursing Sisters were "ill and off duty" at various times during the month, although the hospital's Matron, Annie Jane Hartley, commented: "General health of Nursing Staff is good."

As spring gave way to summer, admissions continued to rise as staff cared for a daily average of 997 patients in June.  The arrival of two small groups of 'ill' patients placed additional demands on a nursing staff struggling to tend to wounded soldiers.  On June 25, Matron Hartley reported: "60 men from [the] Forestry Corps near Reading [were] admitted to Hospital with severe attack[s] of Influenza.  Ward isolated."  Two days later, 18 Nursing Sisters from another facility were attached to the hospital "for quarters and rations… [and] isolated for Measels [sic] and Mumps contact cases, many have colds."  Throughout the month, the hospital received "some severely wounded, tuberculosis [and] Gassed Cases", indicating the breadth of medical care provided by hospital staff.

By July 1918, the number of 'evacuations' [patients being discharged to convalescent homes or other facilities] gradually surpassed admissions, resulting in a reduced daily average of 820 patients, "principally Gas cases, Kidney, Influenza and Surgical cases."  By this time, the German offensive had ground to a halt.  The following month, however, an Allied counter-offensive once more generated a rise in admissions, increasing the daily patient average to 1038 and producing a single-day record of 1290 occupied beds.  Matron Hartley also recorded the arrival of 21 gas cases and 127 femur cases in the last two weeks of August.

Amidst the frenetic pace of nursing care, a variety of events provided Mary and her colleagues with the occasional opportunity for recreation during the summer months.  Each week, staff organized 'cinema performances' and concerts featuring local musical groups and staged on hospital grounds.  Matron Hartley observed: "Bicycle Riding and Tennis are [the] principal recreations enjoyed [by nursing staff]".  Her monthly report also commented that 36 Nursing Sisters "spent a very enjoyable picnic on the River Thames" on the afternoon of August 9. 

Mary Lillian Cameron (left) and two colleagues, Basingstoke, England (date unknown).
Another welcome diversion was a steady stream of dignitaries who interacted with patients and staff.  On June 11, for instance, "The Duke and Duchess of Wellington entertained 60 patients at tea at [their] Ewhurst [estate].  A very enjoyable afternoon was spent."  Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, and his Minister of Militia, Sir Edward Kemp, visited all hospital wards on July 28. 

The following month brought more distinguished guests.  On August 2, CAMC Matron-in-Chief Margaret MacDonald visited the facility, while University of Toronto President Robert Falconer held an afternoon tea in the Nursing Sisters' quarters on August 8.  Four days later, Sir William Osler, renowned Canadian physician and co-founder of Johns Hopkins University, visited the hospital in the company of Lady Osler.  Perhaps the month's most impressive visitor - Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, seventh child and third son of Queen Victoria - toured the hospital on August 30.

By September 1918, the Allied offensive launched in early August pushed the hospital's resources to the limit as patient numbers surpassed 1200.  In response, authorities increased bed capacity to 1540, effective September 9.  The newly available space filled quickly as staff ministered to over 1500 sick and wounded by September 22 and the month's daily patient average rose to 1390.  Admissions were "principally Fractured Femur… and Surgical Cases", with medical staff performing 186 operations, twice as many as the previous month.

Patient numbers remained at or above 1500 throughout October, reaching a peak of 1573 as staff performed a record 249 surgeries.  Nursing staff was increased to 118 to accommodate the increased workload.  Throughout the autumn months, in recognition of the demands placed upon its staff, authorities granted short leaves to small numbers of Nursing Sisters.  Having worked steadily at the Basingstoke facility for six months, Mary received 14 days' service leave on October 28.  Given her interest in travel, she quite likely took the opportunity to tour the attractions of London, only 60 kilometres away, before returning to work on November 10.

No. 4 General Hospital operated at capacity throughout November 1918, accommodating a total of 1593 patients at month's end.  Staff paused briefly on November 11, when a "great deal of excitement [was] shown on [the] report that [an] Armistice was signed".  There was little time for celebration, however, as casualties continued to arrive from the continent and medical staff performed 136 surgeries.  Fortunately, there were several diversions amidst the month's busy schedule.  On November 19, distinguished British surgeon, Sir Arthur William Mayo Robson, visited the facility.  That same day, perhaps in conjunction with his visit, the 'Hospital Orchestra and Concert Party' staged a 'Minstrel & Vaudeville Show' for the entertainment of staff and patients.

Patient numbers briefly exceeded 1600 in early December before declining to 1425 by month's end.  Several lectures on English points of interest - the Thames and Oxford - and contemporary events - the Russian Revolution - offered staff a welcome break from patient care.  Matron Hartley described December 25 as "the happiest day of the year spent in Hospital.  Wards and Dining Halls decorated and splendid dinner and supper served to all.  All expressed their happiness" that hostilities had finally ceased.

While fighting had ceased almost two months previously, admissions continued to outnumber 'evacuations' as hospital staff welcomed in the New Year 1919.  On January 16, 235 new admissions briefly pushed patient numbers above 1700.  The hospital operated above capacity for the remainder of the month as staff daily tended to more than 1600 patients.  The departure of 33 Nursing Sisters for Canada at month's end suggests that CAMC operations in England were beginning to 'wind down', but much work remained before they ceased completely.

No. 4 General Hospital operated at capacity throughout February as Matron Hartley reporting 35 cases of illness - mainly influenza - among nursing staff.   These numbers declined slightly the following month, when 28 Nursing Sisters were unavailable for work.  Mary's health appears to have been unaffected, as her name is not amongst the monthly lists of nurses absent due to illness.  By April, patient numbers began a steady decline, reaching 1219 by mid-month and dropping to 864 at month's end.  The cases of illness amongst nursing staff also decreased to 14, suggesting that the influenza epidemic was also waning.

May's patient numbers clearly indicated that the hospital was fast approaching the end of its mission.  On May 15, only 649 patients remained in the facility, a statistic that declined to 255 as of May 31.  The war diary recorded one marriage in addition to numerous leaves to France by personnel wishing to visit deceased relatives' graves before returning to Canada.  Mary was fortunate enough to receive a brief 'service leave' from May 27 to June 3.  By the time she returned to Basingstoke, staff had received notice that all patients were to be discharged to other facilities by June 6.

The deadline was subsequently postponed until June 7, when the hospital's war diary officially recorded: "Hospital closed for the reception of patients.  All wards cleaned out and all equipment turned in."  The final 32 patients were 'evacuated' by day's end as staff commenced the remaining tasks required for the facility's closure.  Two days later, word arrived that No. 4 General Hospital was "to proceed to Canada as a unit and not to leave Basingstoke" until their departure.  On June 10, the war diary provided an update: "Wards nearly all closed.  Ordnance to take every thing over and sell it at an auction sale."  The following day, medical staff was granted leave as auxiliary personnel completed the tasks required to close the facility.

A sale of hospital contents took place during a two-day, on-site auction held on June 26 and 27.  The following day, 92 Officers and Nursing Sisters were designated to proceed to Canada "with the Unit" on board the SS Olympic.  The remaining 70 Nursing Sisters - including Mary - were scheduled to leave England on July 5.  After the first group's departure, Mary was briefly transferred to No. 15 Canadian General Hospital on June 30.  One week later - July 7, 1919 - she boarded RMS Carmania at Liverpool for the journey home, arriving at Halifax eight days later.

The Cameron family home, Canso, NS.
On July 15, 1919, Lieutenant Mary Lillian Cameron was officially discharged from the Canadian Army Medical Corps, her proposed residence listed as the family home in Canso, NS.  Mary received the British War Medal in recognition of her service with the CAMC in England.  She was also awarded a War Service gratuity of $ 366.00 upon discharge.
Following her military service, Mary continued to work in health services, finding employment in New York City and Montreal as a public health nurse.  On June 7, 1927, she married Colin Andrew Chisholm, a native of Port Hood, NS and son of her parents' long-time acquaintances, Dr. and Mrs. Duncan M. Chisholm.  A World War I veteran who had served with the 7th Siege Battery, Canadian Field Artillery before joining the Royal Flying Corps, Colin graduated from Queen's University in 1924 with a degree in mining engineering after returning to Canada.

After their marriage, the couple briefly resided in Montreal and a small community near Ottawa before relocating to Kirkland Lake, Ontario, where Colin took a position as Assistant Manager with Macassa Mines, a gold-mining operation.  Here, Mary devoted her time to raising a family as the couple's first child - a daughter, Laura - was born on May 28, 1928.  Four more daughters - Dorothy Lee, Jean Marguerite, Carole Ann and Nancy Jane - followed as Mary balanced the tasks of motherhood and family with an active social life that included concerts, theatrical productions and bridge games.  The family remained in Kirkland Lake until 1951, when parents and children relocated to Stirling, Cape Breton, where Colin managed a base metal operation owned by Mindamar Mines.

In 1956, the Chisholm family temporarily returned to Montreal as Colin assumed a Manager's position with a base metals mining company at Beardmore, Ontario.  Shortly after returning to the city where her nursing career began, Mary suffered a sudden, severe brain hemorrhage, passing away unexpectedly on August 26, 1956.  She was laid to rest in Cote Des Neiges Cemetery, Montreal.  Following her death, Colin returned to Montreal, where he remained until his death on September 4, 1977.  He was buried beside his beloved wife, Mary.

Canadian Army Medical Corps Overseas Hospitals.  Canadian Great War Project.  Available online. 

Service Record of Nursing Sister Mary Lillian Cameron.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-92/166, Box 1411-8.  Available online.

War Diary of No. 4 General Hospital, CAMC.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5035, Reel T-10925, File: 854.  Available online.

A special thanks to Mary's daughters, Carole (Chisholm) Henschel and Nancy (Chisholm) Rogers, and Carole's husband Lyman, who provided information about Mary's life in addition to the family pictures displayed in this post.  This story would not have been possible without their invaluable assistance.


  1. Such an interesting read--Such courageous young women.

    1. Indeed, nursing sisters' contributions have not received appropriate acknowledgment. As with their male counterparts, they endured the gruesome consequences of modern warfare, quietly completing their assigned tasks in a manner that deserves our admiration.