First RCH Nursing Grad – Ethel S Cunningham

On June 19, 1903, the first graduate of the Royal Columbian Hospital School of Nursing received her diploma and pin. Ethel Sophia Cunningham graduated ahead of others in that first class because of the training she had received at Women’s Hospital before it amalgamated with RCH in 1901.

Ethel Cunningham’s RCH grad pin from 1903
(note the lacrosse sticks at the top)

Ethel’s family was greatly involved in the development of New Westminster and of the province. Her father Thomas and his brother James Cunningham married twin sisters, Emily and Mary Ann Woodman. Thomas was a member of the provincial assembly and of the New Westminster Municipal Council for two terms, while James was a Member of Parliament as well as serving as Municipal Councillor and Mayor. He was President of the Board of Directors of the RCH at the time his niece, Ethel, graduated and his signature appears on her certificate.

While Thomas ran several businesses at various times in New Westminster, Nanaimo, and in Oregon, his first and abiding love was horticulture. He took first prize for fruit growing over all Canada and in 1900 was named provincial horticulturalist. He and Emily then moved to Vancouver where they spent the rest of their lives.

Ethel, born in 1876 in Salem, Oregon, had five brothers and one sister. Two of her older brothers, Henry and Thomas, became doctors, graduating together from Columbia University, College of Physicians & Surgeons, in 1895. Another brother, James Alexander “Alex”, took over the Cunningham Hardware business and ran it successfully for years.

Emily Mary, who remained single, lived with her parents, first in Oregon, then in New Westminster and finally in Vancouver. She worked as a stenographer for Canada Permanent Mortgage in Vancouver for at least 20 years before moving back to Oregon after her parents’ deaths.

Ethel moved to New Westminster from Oregon at age 17, with her parents and some of her siblings. She worked at the then-called Provincial Insane Asylum in New Westminster for two or three years before working at the Women’s Hospital on Third Avenue. There she received the training that allowed her to graduate ahead of others in her class at RCH. She described that experience years later in a letter to a graduating class, “My training in the Women’s Hospital (Homes 1 and 2) was quite good. Many obstetrical cases and gyn operations, etc. In fact, the V.G.H. sent some of their nurses over for their obstetrical training for a while…We had lectures and exams and (the doctors) were never too hurried or impatient to explain operations and treatments. Our methods were primitive according to present standards but we had good experience in meeting emergencies with what we had on hand – invaluable for private or country nursing.”

Ethel Cunningham at RCH

Immediately after graduating, she accepted a position as surgical nurse at RCH and stayed there for several years. In that same letter she explains her next move. “As I was anxious to know more about modern methods and hospital management, I took a post-graduate course in the General Memorial Hospital in New York (now N.Y. Cancer Hospital). There the work was strictly surgical so I had a splendid opportunity to obtain a thorough training in techniques under some outstanding surgeons. The hours were long and the training hard, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and I might say that never did I feel in any way my training was inferior to other nurses from large hospitals who had come there for special training. After graduation I was asked to stay on the staff as First Assistant in Surgery, which I was very happy to accept. The experience and responsibility were invaluable to me. I had several other good positions offered to me but owing to my father’s illness and his great desire to have me home, I returned to B.C.”

Ethel is listed in the 1911 directory at the home of her parents and sister at 634 7th Avenue in Vancouver as a nurse. But the annual directories from 1912 tell a story that is surprising to say the least. From 1912 until 1931, Ethel Sophia Cunningham with an unusual degree of nursing training and experience for a young woman of her time, worked as a stenographer for the City of Vancouver. There is no indication that she ever returned to her career in nursing. Like her sister, Ethel remained single and lived with her parents until their deaths. In 1932 she moved to Ashland in Oregon, where she died in April of 1958. Eight months later, Emily Mary also died in Ashland.

Why did Ethel and Emily Mary move back to Oregon after so many years in BC? Why did they go to Ashland rather than Salem where they had lived earlier? What did they do for the twenty years there? Why did Ethel leave nursing after devoting so much effort to that career? We don’t know, but we’re still looking for answers. If we find them, you’ll find them here – keep watching.

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