Edith Mary McDowell, LL.D.

(1899-1972)

Edith Mary McDowell is recognized as a pioneer in nursing education in Canada, and for her work that led to establishing the bachelor of science in nursing and other related programs. She was a strong advocate for continuing education for nurses, which she felt should include interviewing skills, studies in communication and knowledge of administration.

McDowell grew up in Brandon, Manitoba and earned her tuition for nursing school by working as a legal secretary. She began her nursing career in 1927, graduating as a Registered Nurse in 1930 from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and later earning her diploma in teaching. She returned to Manitoba, where she worked for over 10 years in public health.

From 1934 to 1941 she was director of nursing at the Winnipeg General Hospital (now Health Sciences Centre). She served as director of health education in Manitoba Normal Schools for Winnipeg and the Interlake, introducing a more practical program of hot lunches in schools, health broadcasts about nutrition and hygiene and a new health course for schools. She became director of health and welfare education for Manitoba and from 1936-38 she served as president of the Manitoba Association of Registered Nurses.

This varied background of experience served her well in her career in Ontario.

After receiving her BSc (Nursing) and MA (Hospital Administration) in 1947 from Columbia University, McDowell became the University of Western Ontario’s first dean of the School of Nursing in London. McDowell was determined the new school of nursing be autonomous and not a minor adjunct to the medical schools as was the case in most hospitals. Her major emphasis on patient-centred care and communication was ground-breaking at the time. She made revisions to the existing community health nursing programs, established major courses in microbiology, interpretive statistics, psychiatric nursing and preventive medicine. During the Cold War, she introduced training to community groups on preparedness for atomic, bacteriological and chemical warfare.

In 1957, a program leading to a diploma in nursing service administration was introduced at Western and McDowell became its director, making sure students learned how to apply administration principles to nursing services and responsibilities. McDowell found funding for large research projects and fellowships, and for intensive development of nursing administration courses. A new master of science in nursing degree was initiated in 1959; McDowell fought to keep the word “science” in the title against vigorous opposition from the medical division of the senate.

McDowell’s career culminated in the building of a new school of nursing at Western, which became known as The House that Edith Built. She was held in great esteem and affection by faculty and students alike, and was granted an honorary doctor of laws in May, 1962. An article in the Canadian Nurse, February, 1972, quotes the citation: “The debt which the whole nursing profession owes to Miss McDowell is exceeded only by the debt which this university owes to her.”

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