HEGAN, ELIZA PARKS, nurse; b. 1861 likely in Portland (Saint John), N.B., daughter of John Hegan and Eliza Black; d. there 18 Feb. 1917.
Eliza Hegan’s father, a native of Belfast, was one of Saint John’s leading dry goods merchants, for some years in partnership with his brother-in-law William Parks*, after whom Eliza was named. A Presbyterian, Eliza attended a private school, which may have provided her with a better education than that obtainable in the free schools of the city. Her formative years were probably influenced by strong Victorian values; certainly her career path shows that she was motivated by duty.
In 1888 Eliza was one of ten women chosen by the Saint John General Public Hospital to undergo a month’s trial in nursing at its newly established training school, one of the oldest at a lay hospital in Canada. She agreed, as they all did, to remain for two years if accepted. Why she chose nursing is not known. A resident of a port city with fluctuating sanitary conditions, a transient population, and frequent outbreaks of disease, she would have been familiar with concerns about public health. No doubt she was also aware of Florence Nightingale’s mission of service, and she may have been impressed as well with the care-giving work of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception in Saint John and the Religious Hospitallers of St Joseph at Tracadie [see Honoria Conway*; Amanda Viger*]. As a student nurse, she would have received board and lodging at the hospital and attended lectures from physicians and classes with the matron; her duties were to prepare and serve food to the patients, to learn about medications, and to give baths, administer fomentations, and make and apply bandages.
After graduation in 1890, the inexperienced Eliza went to Fredericton to take charge of the 20-bed Victoria Public Hospital, the previous matron having been discharged for “using threatening and dictatorial language to the hospital trustees.” The venture was a brave one, for she undoubtedly had to function under intense scrutiny. In 1892 she returned to Saint John to begin a three-year term as matron at her alma mater. She soon became an agent of change, recommending that the duties of matron be divided and a head nurse appointed, a reform that would take place in 1895. In 1893 she caused controversy when she refused to sign the graduation certificates of four nurses who had broken the rules. Although she was supported by two physicians, including Dr William Bayard*, president of the board of hospital commissioners, the board ruled against her and she left the hospital in frustration in 1895: “I got a better offer and I was not sorry to leave. I did not care about being there.”
Eliza spent the next three years as a night supervisor at the New York Polyclinic Medical School and Hospital, where she contracted typhoid fever. After returning to Saint John in 1898, she established a private hospital, one of three in the city. She is credited by some with having played a role in the formation in 1903 of the first society for nurses in the Maritimes, the Graduate Nurses’ Society of the Saint John General Public Hospital, but she was not among the 16 charter-members and early minutes do not regularly contain her name. By March 1909 the society admitted all nursing graduates resident in the city and was called the Saint John Graduate Nurses Association. Eliza served as this body’s fifth president and acted as registrar for some years. When a provincial organization was incorporated in 1916 as the New Brunswick Association of Graduate Nurses, she was one of 16 nurses on a provisional council to make bylaws. By then she may have been in failing health; present by proxy at the first meeting of the new group, she was nominated for council but was not elected.
In 1917, at the age of 56, Eliza Parks Hegan died of cirrhosis of the liver. The provincial nurses’ society recognized her contribution to her profession, and the Canadian Nurses’ Association later praised her “sterling character and high principles.” Although her years of service were few, the pattern of her leadership provides an image of tenacity and independence.
City of Saint John, Common Clerk’s Office, Index of marriages and deaths, comp. C. Ward, 1972, burial permit no.204. Nurses Assoc. of New Brunswick, Nursing Hist. Resource Centre (Fredericton), New Brunswick Assoc. of Graduate Nurses, minutes, book 1, 1916–24. PANB, RS595 (Royal commission on hospital services, 1902, evidence of hearings, vol.2; vol.1 is missing). Saint John Globe, 19 Feb. 1917. [A. S. Chipman Tilley], Lady Tilley, Victoria Cottage Hospital, commenced 21st June, 1887, opened 21st June, 1888; a short account of a little work begun in faith (Saint John, 1888). A. V. Hanscome [Crouse], History of the Saint John General Hospital and School of Nursing ([Saint John, 1955]). Health care in New Brunswick, 1784–1984 ([Fredericton, 1984]). Arlee Hoyt McGee, The visionaries, ed. George Bergeron ([Fredericton, 1991]). Arlee [Hoyt] McGee and Mary Myles, The Victoria Public Hospital, Fredericton, 1888–1976 (Fredericton, 1984). Pioneers of nursing in Canada (Montreal, ). St. John and its business: a history of St. John (Saint John, 1875). Victoria Public Hospital, Annual report (Fredericton), 1931: 10 (copy in the Nursing Hist. Resource Centre).