COWAN, AGNES, nurse and hospital administrator; b. 1839 in Moffat, Scotland, seventh and youngest child of John Cowan and Elizabeth Hastie; d. unmarried 25 March 1893 in St John’s.
Agnes Cowan is commonly remembered as the Florence Nightingale of Newfoundland. A devoutly religious, literate, middle-class woman, she was the type of “lady” Nightingale envisioned as the ideal nurse. Her 39-year career demonstrated her sense of vocation. Unlike most nurses, who had to work simply to survive, Cowan had a supportive, affluent family. Nevertheless, she devoted herself to her demanding career; she sacrificed personal comforts to live at the hospital she supervised so that she could be on constant call to her patients.
Cowan came to Newfoundland in 1840 with her family, who began farming an area of St John’s surrounding present-day Cowan Avenue. She had no formal nursing education but started a lengthy apprenticeship under the supervision of her sister Janet in 1854, at the age of 15. The sisters shared a room in the cold, damp basement of the St John’s Hospital at Riverhead. Janet, 20 years Agnes’s senior, taught her everything she knew about nursing and administration, and when Janet became matron in 1860, Agnes was made her assistant. Shortly after Janet’s death from tuberculosis in 1865, Agnes was promoted to matron at the age of 25. The job added many responsibilities to her nursing duties including supervising staff, ordering general supplies, assisting at operations, and assuming care of the most serious cases.
When the building at Riverhead was closed (except for emergencies) in 1871, the hospital was relocated to a former military hospital in the east end of the city and Agnes Cowan became its first matron. Although her long hours and heavy work-load continued at the new facility, her working and living conditions were greatly improved. The new building provided the matron with an attractive apartment, the home she was to occupy until her death.
In the next 22 years Cowan continued to build her life around her work, and her expertise was widely acknowledged. She was particularly known for her kindness to her patients and her ability to soothe fears of the gravely ill and the dying. Her administrative talents also received recognition. In 1890, for example, the directors of the St John’s Lunatic Asylum requested Cowan’s help in implementing long-needed reforms. She obtained leave from the hospital and took over as matron of the asylum for three months. In his report for that year, the attending physician, Kenneth MacKenzie, gratefully acknowledged her service, praising her administrative abilities and giving her much credit for improved conditions at the institution.
In March 1893 Agnes Cowan died of tuberculosis at the age of 54. Her obituary in the Evening Herald referred to her dedication and kindness. Her memorials, however, were not confined to a few paragraphs in the local paper. A group of philanthropic women in 1893 established the Cowan Mission, which for 90 years honoured her memory through charity and care for the poor, the sick, and particularly the elderly. In 1984 St John’s newest general hospital, the Health Sciences Centre, named a wing after the pioneering nurse: the Agnes Cowan Hostel provides accommodation for outport families whose relatives are confined to the hospital. It seems an especially fitting tribute to a woman who always tried to meet the emotional, as well as the physical, needs of her patients.
Newfoundland Geneal. Soc. (St John’s), Frances [Cowan] McKinlay, “Cowan family history.” PANL, P8/A/35. Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, app., 1860–91 (reports of the visiting physicians); 1867 (evidence taken by select committee on the St John’s Hospital); 1891: 376 (report of medical attendant of the lunatic asylum). Evening Herald (St John’s), 27 March 1893. Joyce Nevitt, White caps and black bands: nursing in Newfoundland to 1934 ([St John’s], 1978). Daily News (St John’s), 1 Feb. 1984. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 31 Jan. 1984.