The 101st Peking University Medical Humanities Forum: Sonya Grypma: Early Development of Nursing in Canada——The “Grey Nun” Effect

  On September 24th, 2022, the 101st Peking University Medical Humanities Forum was held online. Professor Sonya Grypma (University of British Columbia, Canada) was invited to make a lecture entitled “Early Development of Nursing in Canada——The ‘Grey Nun’ Effect”. Associate Professor Jiang Yuhong (Peking Union Medical College) was invited as the commentator. The lecture was chaired by Professor Zhen Cheng (School of Medical Humanities, Peking University).

  Professor Sonia has served as the Dean of the College of Nursing and the President of the Canadian College of Nursing Association. She is also a famous scholar who has worked in the field of nursing history for many years. The historical research of Canadian nurses in China is one of her main research directions. In this lecture, Professor Sonia started with the nuns and nurses in Canada more than 400 years ago, and focused on the early nursing work in Canada. In the early days, Canadian nurses were mostly nuns, who wore black nuns’ dresses. Their hats were slightly folded down into black sharp corners, and a cross was placed on their chest. With historical photos, Professor Sonia compared the differences between the clothing of early nuns and nurses today in particular, and found that the religious color of nurse clothing has almost disappeared. During the lecture, Sonia reviewed the changes in the labels of nurse, the methods of teaching, the locations for nursing, as well as hierarchical relationships in Canada. In addition, she discussed the impact of nursing in early stage on the current situation and the inheritance of nursing values.

  With iconic historical images, Professor Sonia illustrated the development of Canada’s nursing industry. She pointed out that around 1639, before the founding of Canada, a group of French nuns came to Quebec to engage in nursing work. This group of nuns were the earliest formal nurses in Canada, and the nurses in Canada have gradually formed a team. Under the supervision of female supervisors, they received apprenticeship nursing education, not only cultivating nursing skills, but also learning operations such as pharmaceuticals. In 1737, Marguerite d’Youville established the Sisters’ Charity Society in Montreal. The members of the organization, also known as “Grey Nuns”, gradually took over the management of Canadian hospitals. Around 1840, nun nurses were renamed nursing sisters, and their nurse hats have gradually changed, no longer completely covering their hair.

  Grey nuns could be found all over Canada, even in Zhejiang Province, China. With the spirit of Christian benevolence, grey nuns spared no effort to go to remote and barren places to provide assistance to people in need. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, grey nuns traveled thousands of miles to China by boat spontaneously. They took care of injured Chinese people with extremely limited resources and endless care. Finally, Professor Sonia summarized by quoting Nightingale’s maxim: “Nursing is an art, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body.” At the end of the lecture, Professor Sonia presented a relief of the Parliament Building in Ottawa, Canada. In the center of the relief is a goddess representing human nature, with a nun nurse holding a baby on one side, and a modern nurse and indigenous people suffering from illness on the other. Professor Sonia often brings her students here to visit and for nursing history education.

  After that, Associate Professor Jiang Yuhong from Beijing Union Medical College commented on the lecture. Firstly, She pointed out the similarities between the origins of the Chinese and Canadian nursing. In 1884, McKenzie introduced the Nightingale nursing system at Shanghai Xi Men Women and Children Hospital, which was recognized as the beginning of modern Chinese nursing. Moreover, the establishment of the Chinese Nurses Association in 1909 was closely related to missionary institutions. Therefore, the development of early nursing in both Canada and China was inseparable from religious groups and missionaries. Some important concepts in the study of nursing history, such as “Care” and “Cure”, need to be examined in conjunction with the corresponding background. Professor Sonia’s lecture showed us the humanistic nature of nursing development in the early stage. Thus, the researches on nursing humanities should be strengthened by the educators in nursing, researchers of nursing history, as well as scholars in related fields.

  Because of the COVID-19, this lecture was held online, and more than 80 people had participated in it. After the speech, teachers and students from the field of nursing, medical history and so on had a heated discussion with Professor Sonia. This lecture has received a warm response and provided a platform for communication between nursing scholars and nursing history researchers. By reviewing the history of nursing development in early Canada, the core values of nursing practice were revisited, and the nurses’ professional identity was stimulated.

  At the end of the lecture, Professor Zhen Cheng, School of Medical Humanities, Peking University, provided unique insights on how to conduct nursing history research and the importance of nursing history research for current medical and social development. It is expected that the lecture will promote the research of nursing history in China.


  Wu Zijing, Peking University School of Health Humanities