CAMPBELL, ELLA (Nellie), nurse and administrator; b. c. 1884, probably in St John’s, daughter of Colin Campbell and Rachel Dicks; d. unmarried there 9 May 1918.
The only child of a successful commission merchant in St John’s, Ella Campbell entered the nursing school at the General Hospital there in 1904 and became a member of its second graduating class three years later. The school, established in 1903 by Mary Meager Southcott*, had only recently transformed nursing into a respectable occupation for single young women of Campbell’s background. After completing her training, Campbell proceeded to Edinburgh to study as a midwife and was certified in January 1908. She returned to St John’s to spend three years as a private duty nurse and as a senior nurse at the General Hospital.
By 1911 the Association for the Prevention of Consumption, a voluntary organization formed in St John’s in 1908, was eager to determine if sanatorium-style treatment, based on a regimen of fresh air, nourishment, and prolonged rest, would work in the inclement climate of Newfoundland. The major killer of adults there, lung tuberculosis had from 1906 to 1911 claimed 3,964 lives, representing 19.5 per cent of the total mortality. The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire responded to the APC challenge and in August 1911 established a camp for open-air treatment at Mundy Pond, where Campbell volunteered her services as nurse in charge. Encouraged by reports of the camp’s initial success, transportation magnates William Duff Reid* and his brothers Henry Duff and Robert Gillespie offered to build, furnish, and equip a large sanatorium in St John’s as well as 16 smaller ones in the rural districts, which the Newfoundland government could then run. This offer and growing public pressure for the government to deal with what was now perceived as the country’s major health, if not economic, problem, persuaded the government to become involved. In May 1912 it appointed Campbell nursing superintendent of the nascent Tuberculosis Public Service, answerable to its medical officer, Dr Herbert Rendell, and instructed her to proceed to Edinburgh to study at the Royal Victoria Hospital for Consumption under Dr Robert William Philip, the renowned tuberculosis specialist. By July she was acting assistant matron there, to the “entire satisfaction” of the staff.
Campbell returned to St John’s after more than five months to found with Rendell the Tuberculosis Dispensary on Hamilton Avenue, where her most important work was carried out. Here tubercular patients were diagnosed, monitored, and advised as to the best means of treating the disease and preventing its spread. Since the homes of the tubercular were considered by Rendell “the breeding place of the disease,” Campbell and her team of two or three nurses launched an energetic program of domestic tuition focusing on basic health and hygiene. In 1913 they saw 258 patients at the dispensary and made nearly 12,000 visits to 177 infected households. Recognizing that it was useless to prescribe a diet or other arrangements the family could not afford, Campbell inquired into the financial condition of each household and arranged help if needed. She also administered the two-year training program for tuberculosis nurses and continued to supervise the Mundy Pond camp. From June to August 1915 she worked in the outports, travelling to communities in Conception, Trinity, Bonavista, and Placentia bays, where she visited homes and distributed literature, handkerchiefs, and sputum cups. Campbell reported that conditions were better than expected, tuberculosis less prevalent, and people “anxious to be taught,” whereas her subordinate, nurse N. Godden, formed an overriding impression of poverty, ignorance, laziness, and “‘king dirt.’” In 1916, exhausted and in poor health, Campbell spent her only holiday in four years acquiring first-hand knowledge of the tuberculosis work being conducted in Canada and the United States.
The Reid sanatorium had died a natural death following the outbreak of World War I, but in 1916 the government determined to proceed with the construction of a 42-bed sanatorium in St John’s. Opened in March 1917 with a staff of 20, the sanatorium was where Campbell, its nursing superintendent and matron (and probably tubercular herself), spent the remaining 14 months of her life. The press reported that, ill with the grippe, she died suddenly of heart failure.
Campbell’s contribution to the solution of one of Newfoundland’s most enduring health problems is not commonly remembered in St John’s. At the time, however, her achievements were recognized, and after her death the government erected a plaque to her memory which praised the “selfless Devotion” of “a Faithful Servant of the State.” She had also contributed to her profession in other ways. In 1913 and 1914 she served as vice-president of the newly formed Graduate Nurses Association of Newfoundland.
PANL, GN 2/5, files 5, 18, 119A, 228A–K. Daily News (St John’s), 24 Oct. 1917, 10 May 1918. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 21 Sept. 1881, 1 July 1914, 24 Oct. 1917, 9 May 1918. Assoc. for the Prevention of Consumption, Extracts from report of the commission appointed by the government . . . on the subject of public health in the colony of Newfoundland, 1909 ([St John’s, 1909]; copy at PANL). Linda Bryder, Below the magic mountain: a social history of tuberculosis in twentieth-century Britain (Oxford and New York, 1988). “Daughters of the Empire,” Distaff (St John’s), 1916 (copy in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial Univ. of Nfld, St John’s). Edgar House, Light at last: triumph over tuberculosis, 1900–1975, Newfoundland and Labrador (St John’s, 1981). Joyce Nevitt, White caps and black bands: nursing in Newfoundland to 1934 (St John’s, 1978). Nfld, House of Assembly, Journal, 1904–19. Numo, “She gave her young life,” Happy Warrior (St John’s), 4, no.3 (June/July 1946): 14–15 (copy in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies). Linda White, “The General Hospital School of Nursing, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1903–1930”