Margaret Macdonald: Imperial daughter

By Margaret Goldik

A review of Margaret Macdonald: Imperial Daughter by Susan Mann

Published on October 1, 2005

Margaret Macdonald: Imperial Daughter
Susan Mann

McGill-Queens University Press
$39.95
cloth
304pp
0-7735-2999-3

Mann’s exploration of Margaret Macdonald’s world is both scholarly and readable. It rarely bogs the reader down with extraneous material but instead clearly portrays this indomitable woman and an era in which women were expected to be only helpmeets to their men.

Margaret Macdonald was born in rural Nova Scotia in 1873, daughter of a well-to-do Scottish merchant. She had dreams beyond her gender: she craved adventure, travel, new experiences. She was also a “born nurse” and a very able administrator. Some of the wars that pock-marked the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave her the ability to make her dreams come true. Macdonald became a military nurse in the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, nursed in Panama during the construction of the canal, and finally became a matron/administrator in the First World War with the rank of Major.

World War I was a devastating introduction to modern warfare for medical personnel. “Attacks on hospitals and hospital ships were legally and morally beyond the pale of even the hideous practices of the Great War” – but they were a reality. Nurses were killed and wounded in action, as were the soldiers they tended. Fourteen nurses (and two hundred men) were drowned when a German submarine sank the Llandovery Castle, and epitaphs formerly used only for soldiers now became necessary for military nurses.

Macdonald was not a feminist in any real sense: she disapproved of the Suffragette movement because of its radical actions. But she made sure that her nurses were treated as “officers and ladies” in the military, as the professionals that nurses were becoming. The working uniform she designed for her nurses was carefully calculated to carry a particular image:

“The white apron over the cornflower-blue housedress suggesting a mother, the white collar and cuffs a schoolgirl, and the white flowing veil a nun. …. With so much symbolism stitched into the nurses’ uniforms, it is not surprising that Macdonald wanted it to be impeccable. No question therefore, of personal additions to the uniform … Nor was there to be any fancy evening attire: nurses would attend theatre performances and gala soirées in dress uniform or not go at all.”

After the war Macdonald attempted to write a history of military nurses, but soliciting memories from the nurses who had worked in combat zones proved to be impossible:

“…much of what they had experienced was literally beyond words. Between the work they loved and its purpose of repairing and shipping men back to slaughter the gulf was just too deep. Like many of their soldier comrades, the nurses went silent after the war.”

Fortunately Mann has broken the long silence with this tale of an extraordinary woman in extraordinary times. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.

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