JOHNSTONE, ISABEL (at birth she was named Isabella Johnston), nurse and hospital superintendent; b. 15 Dec. 1872 in Guelph, Ont., eldest daughter of John Johnston, a carpenter, and Ann McPherson; d. unmarried 4 June 1923 in Fort William (Thunder Bay), Ont.
Isabel Johnstone’s parents were born in Scotland. After her father had died of tuberculosis early in 1878 at age 30, her mother raised Isabel and her younger siblings, Margaret A., John, and Jessie, in Guelph, where she had ties with relatives and the Presbyterian Church. The family does not appear in the census records, however, until 1891: Isabel as a milliner, John as an apprentice tailor, and their mother as a seamstress in a woollen mill. Margaret drowned in 1900, and the only members listed in 1901 are Isabel’s mother and Jessie, a stenographer. In 1905 Jessie married William John Dollery, a machinist for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Fort William.
In 1907 Isabel moved there to train as a nurse at the John McKellar Memorial Hospital, built in 1903 in memory of John McKellar*. Before its erection nursing services had been provided by the Victorian Order of Nurses, one of whose members, Christina Banks, became the hospital’s first superintendent. After its School of Nursing opened in 1904, most of the hospital’s employees were students. The hospital’s board and Ladies’ Aid arranged for donations of furnishings, equipment, and capital, and a new wing was added to the hospital in 1909, at which time it was renamed McKellar General Hospital. The students worked 12-hour shifts with a half day off each week and lived in the hospital until a residence was built in 1911.
By the time Isabel had graduated, in 1910, McKellar’s capacity had more than tripled, from 35 beds to 120. She joined a staff of 5 graduate nurses, 14 students, and 2 interns. In April 1913, after working as head nurse of the surgical ward and then as operating-room supervisor, she was appointed superintendent. Because her quarters were in the hospital, she was able to devote all her energy to its operation and her beloved students. She interviewed all applicants personally and arranged for their practical and formal education. (It is on a student’s acceptance form that her only known signature, Isabel Johnstone, appears.) According to graduates, she was a motherly, well-built woman with a pleasant face, but she could be firm when necessary. Despite many challenges, under her supervision the number of graduate nurses doubled, the enrolment at the School of Nursing quadrupled, and another wing was built. The crowning achievement was the hospital’s accreditation by the province in 1922.
Unfortunately, in June of that year Isabel Johnstone underwent surgery for breast cancer in Rochester, N.Y. She died at the age of 50, just before the class of 1923 graduated. It was a sad troop of uniformed nurses and students that paraded to St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church for the funeral of their role model. The chairman of the hospital board praised her efficiency and devotion to duty, and flags on public buildings flew at half mast. A second service was held in Guelph at 126 Palmer Street, Isabel’s childhood home, before her burial in the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery.
She was not forgotten. Jane Hogarth, a McKellar graduate who had been appointed assistant during Isabel’s illness, founded the McKellar Alumnae Association in her honour and raised funds to furnish a ward in her name. Although the ward has not survived, the alumnae continue to hold annual banquets.
Isabel Johnstone was representative of the many women whose contributions influenced Canada’s social development at the local level. During her 16 years at McKellar General, the hospital not only achieved accreditation but also reflected the high standards she helped set for its School of Nursing. McKellar graduated 1,100 nurses between 1907 and 1971, when the responsibility for training nurses was transferred to Ontario’s Department of Education.
[Isabel Johnstone’s paper trail consists of little more than her signature on a student’s acceptance form. Her family does not appear in the census records for Guelph, Ont., until 1891. Death notices and obituaries yielded some information, but hospital records are virtually non-existent. The main sources for her life, including the student nurses’ yearbook Iridos (Fort William [Thunder Bay], Ont.), are found among the archival holdings of the Thunder Bay Hist. Museum Soc. Certain aspects of Isabel’s character were confirmed by two 1923 McKellar graduates, the late Jessie McLaren Hamilton of Thunder Bay, and the late Mary Sideen Berglund of Ignace, Ont. e.b.]
AO, RG 80-2-0-42, no.24122. LAC, RG 31, C1, Guelph, 1891, 1901. Thunder Bay Hist. Museum Soc., Jane Hogarth, Address given at the 60th anniversary banquet of McKellar Nursing School, 2 June 1964 (typescript, ), and “A history of McKellar General Hospital” (typescript, n.d.); Jane Hogarth biog. file (includes acceptance form bearing Isabel Johnstone’s signature); Olga Jagodnik, interview with Jane Hogarth, 6 April 1977 (transcript); McKellar Nursing School Alumnae coll., minute-books and class photographs. Daily Times-Journal (Fort William), 4-5 June 1923. Guelph Mercury, 6, 8 June 1923. Canadian Nurse and Hospital Rev. (Toronto), 19 (1923): 425. Directory, Fort William and Port Arthur [Thunder Bay], 1910-14/15. Iridos, 1926, 1951.