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  Alan Bowker

On Sunday, November 9, 1919, Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII), visited MacKay Presbyterian Church to unveil two brass plaques honouring the 140 men and one woman who, out of a congregation of 437 members and 137 families, had fought for King and Country in the Great War. On one side of the Sanctuary was the Honour Roll listing all who served; on the opposite wall was a plaque bearing the names of the nineteen who died. 

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The church was splendidly decorated and people were sitting in the aisles. The Prince had just dedicated a magnificent memorial window in St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church. As he walked down MacKay Street accompanied by the Governor General, the Duke, the Duchess, and a clutch of aides from Rideau Hall, he was greeted (according to the Ottawa Citizen) by throngs of “people, eager to catch a glimpse of the future ruler of the Empire before he goes away,” whose “loud burst of applause ... was responded to with that characteristic winning smile.” When the party arrived at the church door they were met by the Minister of MacKay, Rev. Peter Anderson, who conducted them to the front of the church and began the service of thanksgiving. 

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 Following the service, after appropriate speeches by Rev. Anderson and the Prince, and with the Elders of the church standing solemnly by, Elizabeth Ralph, a diminutive 34-year-old former nursing sister, handed the ribbons to the Prince to unveil the two plaques.

Who was Elizabeth Ralph, and why was she accorded this honour?
Elizabeth Kirkland Ralph – the only woman on MacKay’s Honour Roll – was born on March 8, 1885, the fourth of five surviving children of Robert A. Ralph (1852-1917) and Eugenia Dunning Ralph (1857-1951). Robert was a “lumber agent” for the W. C. Edwards Company, a position he held for decades. The Ralphs were staunch members of MacKay and Elizabeth’s mother and her older sister Isabel were very active in the Ladies’ Aid, Women’s Missionary Society, and other activities of the church. “Lizzie” Ralph taught Sunday School, served as Secretary of the “Mission Band”, and attended Ottawa Ladies’ College, which was supported by Presbyterian churches in the city. She was described on her attestation papers as just over five feet tall and of a “slight” build, but she was intelligent, ambitious and motivated by deep religious faith as well as a desire to serve. In 1907 she enrolled in the Clifton Springs Sanitarium Training School for Nurses.

The Clifford Springs Sanitarium, on a sulphur spring located not far from Rochester, NY, was widely known in the early nineteenth century as a hydrotherapy treatment centre patterned after German spas. Under the direction of an evangelical Methodist physician, Dr. Henry Foster, it expanded into a progressive medical centre with the most modern facilities and up-to-date practices combining the best of western medicine with homeopathy and hydrotherapy, mental health treatment, patient-centred medicine, and an emphasis on spiritualism. The hospital pioneered the use of X-rays, laboratory study and diagnosis, surgery, and occupational therapy, and in 1892 it opened one of the earliest nursing schools in the United States. In this environment Elizabeth Ralph learned methods of care and an approach to restorative healing. At a time when the Canadian nursing profession was struggling for recognition, Elizabeth Ralph was by 1911 well established, according to the census, as a “trained nurse” who earned $500 a year, a respectable income for a woman at that time.

As a patriotic, religious women with sound professional credentials, Elizabeth Ralph wanted to serve her country when war broke out. But the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) was initially reluctant to recruit large numbers of nurses and political pull was often needed to get in. Many medical men still did not consider nurses as medical professionals but, at best, as hospital labour or, at worst, as potential sources of discord. The CAMC did give trained nurses officer rank, in part to differentiate them from the untrained young women in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), and in part to ensure they would be subject to control and discipline. But by 1916 there was a backlog of some 2000 professional nurses applying to enlist in the CAMC.

The British had no such qualms. The Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service (QAINS), had been formed during the Boer War to recruit military nurses. Early in the First World War, facing a shortage of trained nurses, the QAINS sent out a call for nursing sisters from “the Dominions” to serve with the Imperial forces. For Canadian nurses trying to get into active service, the QAINS was a godsend, and some 313 answered the call. Their contract was to be for one year at forty pounds per annum plus board and laundry, with an option to renew for the duration of the war. The nurses would travel to England in civilian clothes under the auspices of the CAMC, but they would then be turned over to the QAINS with the clear stipulation that they had no connection with the CAMC. Thus it was that in April 1916, Elizabeth Ralph found herself on a ship to England, along with six other nurses from the Ottawa area.
We do not know what Ralph’s experience was in the QAINS. Another recruit of similar age and background who joined in April 1916 recorded in a diary her experience at Casualty Clearing Stations and General Hospitals at the front, and of supervising an ambulance train – positions of great responsibility requiring fortitude and skill. But she also expressed dissatisfaction with the competence and professionalism of some British medical personnel, with arbitrary British regulation and discipline, and with their sense of superiority to the “rough” colonials, the abrupt movement from one assignment to another, and probably a degree of sexual harassment.

By 1917 the CAMC had changed its mind and now wanted more trained nurses. When the opportunity to transfer from the QAINS presented itself in 1917, Ralph jumped at the chance. On October 16, 1917 she enlisted in the CAMC as a nursing sister (lying about her age to appear four years younger than she was). She was now a lieutenant/nursing sister, equivalent to 2nd lieutenant, which allowed her to be treated as an officer, to wear a very smart uniform off-duty (like that pictured here), to have authority at least over local hospital staff and “other ranks” patients.

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On November 10 she was assigned to No. 12 Canadian General Hospital in Bramshott, which had some 600 beds as well as a VD unit with 350 beds and a pulmonary unit with about 200 beds. Ralph worked there until the hospital was closed in July 1919. In September she was “brought to notice Secretary for War for valuable services rendered during the war” – the equivalent of “mentioned in dispatches.” She was finally discharged in Canada on August 17, 1919.

Working in a general hospital in Britain was a more stable environment than Casualty Clearing Stations or Field Hospitals nearer the front, and the emphasis was on treatment and recovery. With her training in hydrotherapy and restorative healing, it is possible that Ralph worked in recovery and rehabilitation wards, including shell-shock cases. The responsibility accorded nurses in military hospitals blurred traditional gender and rank relationships and gave them a respect they had not been accorded in civilian life. Nonetheless they were subject to many pressures: to be competent while remaining feminine; to be professional while often seen as ministering angels; to come to grips with the military need to get men back to the front instead of the care and comfort for the afflicted and dying that nurses, especially religious women like Ralph, considered essential not only to their calling but to the recovery of their patients. And we know nothing of the social life of Elizabeth Ralph as a 30-something nursing sister not far from London. The experience of war profoundly affected nurses’ ideas of religion, gender identities, the British Empire, and their profession, and made their transition back into civilian and family life challenging, as it was for male soldiers.

As a returning veteran from a leading family in the church, she was held in great respect on her return. But unlike her unmarried older sister Isabel, who continued to live at home, look after her widowed mother and participate in the varied activities of the church, Elizabeth had a profession and a unique experience. It is not clear where her path took her in the 1920s. But on February 2, 1929, at age 43, she was united in marriage by Rev. Anderson with Peter Butler Olney, 47, of New York. “The bride wore a beautiful Parisian gown of beige chiffon, hand painted in a design of pink roses and combined with beige lace, and a hat of beige felt and straw, and she carried a bouquet of sunset roses and orchids,” reported the Ottawa Citizen. After a honeymoon in Quebec, the couple moved to New York where she spent the rest of her life.

Peter Olney came from a distinguished legal family. His father had been a prominent New York Democrat as well as a leading member of the bar, and had played a key role in taking down the infamous Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall in the 1880s. His brother Richard Olney had been U. S. Secretary of State in the second administration of President Grover Cleveland. Peter Olney had graduated from Harvard in 1903 and Harvard Law School in 1906, had been appointed assistant U. S. Attorney in the South District of New York in 1919, and had succeeded his father in 1922 as Federal Bankruptcy Referee in New York City. But he had also known terrible tragedy. Two of his children by his first wife had drowned, together with his nephew, when they pursued a toy sailboat into a deep river. Peter and his wife had had two more children, in 1922 and 1925, but she had then died in 1927.

Elizabeth Ralph thus became the stepmother of two young children in a family rich with legal tradition and solid wealth. She presumably adapted well to the role and in 1936 became a naturalized U. S. Citizen. She died in 1947 at age 64 in New York after a short illness. The funeral took place from the family residence “Casa Loma” at Scarborough-on-Hudson and she was buried in the Olney family plot on Long Island. Her stepson, Peter, was by then a student at Harvard. Her husband died at Andover, Massachusetts, in 1968.

With the death of Eugenia Ralph in 1951 the Ralph family home at 76 Stanley was sold (and probably torn down shortly afterward, along with the other houses on the river side of the street, to make a park). Isabel Ralph died at Island Lodge in 1975.