Early Life in Sweden
Louise Flach was born in Sweden on 30 January 1896, on a large farm estate located near the Baltic Sea about 200 miles south of Stockholm. Her parents, Sixten Flach and Hilleved Neergaard, were wealthy landowners with family connections to both the Swedish and Danish royal families. Her father was a trained naturalist and conservationist who helped found the bird sanctuary on Stora Karlsö, Gotland. Visitors to the estate included ornithologists and nature artists. When Louise was 17, her father died, and the family moved to the city. The following year, she was presented to the court of King Gustav V of Sweden. Her life was expected to be an extended series of banquets and balls until she made a suitable match and married someone of similar social status. But Louise wanted to do something meaningful, and when the First World War broke out in 1914, she decided to become a Red Cross nurse. She could not begin formal training until she was 21 years old, so she worked on probation at the General Hospital of Norrköping in the interim.
Red Cross Nurse in Europe
Louise found Red Cross nurse training very demanding. Horrified by the sights and smells of disease and death, she often wept from sheer fatigue. But the rigorous training “subdued the rebellious, immature girl that I was,” she later wrote. “[T]he strict discipline and the meticulous teaching were imparting to me not only a vocation but an art.” Her hard-won discipline and knowledge would shape Louise’s life for the next seven decades.
After completing her Red Cross training, Nurse Flach was assigned to a camp hospital in Horserød in neutral Denmark, taking care of badly wounded Russian officers. Like most Swedes of her generation, Louis had been raised to view Russians as traditional enemies. Despite this, Nurse Flach soon fell in love with a young Russian lieutenant named Gleb Nikoleyevich Kirilin.
Marriage and Russian Civil War
Flach married Kirilin in the last days of 1918, only to see him depart three days after the ceremony to serve with the White Russian Army as his homeland was plunged into civil war. It wasn’t until March 1919 that Gleb sent for Louise to join him in Arkhangelsk in northern Russia.
In her autobiography, Another Winter, Another Spring, Louise wryly notes she departed for Russia on April Fool’s Day, 1919. The Red Army controlled all the direct railroad routes from Western Europe to Eastern Russia. To reach Gleb, Louise first had to endure a 36-hour train ride north from Stockholm to Narvik, a tiny lumber port 209 km north of the Arctic Circle on the west coast of Norway. From there, she boarded a sea tug that steamed east to the Lofoten Islands, where she transferred to a coastal steamer that took her north and west through the icy Barents Sea toward White Russia. Because she and Gleb had never had the chance to set up their own household, Louise’s luggage included seven huge trunks containing her bride’s trousseau and wedding gifts.
To ward off unwanted male advances and make border crossings and military checkpoints easier, Louise wore her Red Cross nurse uniform as she travelled. She and her seven trunks had to change vessels twice more. At the tiny port of Vardø on the easternmost shore of Norway, Louise boarded a smaller boat that took her to Murmansk, Russia. There she was stopped by a port official from travelling further inland because she was now in an active war zone. But her Red Cross nurse uniform induced two French naval officers to smuggle her and her luggage aboard a British troop ship that was travelling up the Dvina River. On April 22, Louise finally landed in Arkhangelsk. The reunited newlyweds had barely enough time to unpack Louise’s luggage when Gleb went back into action again. Louise followed her husband in the field, serving as a field nurse just behind the front lines —leaving behind most of the possessions she had painstakingly hauled from Sweden to Russia.
Within weeks, the White Army front collapsed. Louise and Gleb joined a huge retreating army fleeing by foot or horse-drawn sleigh through the Russian countryside. After more than a week of living outdoors along the corpse-strewn route, they found themselves cut off and captured by the Bolsheviks.
The male and female prisoners were sent by train to Petrozavodsk, where they were interned in separate accommodations. After questioning, Louise and the other women were released, while the men were eventually sent to Moscow for interrogation. Louise travelled separately to Moscow, where she visited Gleb in prison camp. However, he and the other captive officers were moved without warning in June. Some time later, Louise heard a rumour that 500 officers, including Gleb, had been executed. Hoping the rumours were wrong, she decided to remain in Russia rather than return to Sweden. Louise volunteered for a Swedish Red Cross Mission trying to combat a massive famine that was wracking the Soviet Union, working with thousands of famine victims and orphans from 1920 to 1924. Year by year, her hope of finding Gleb alive slowly faded.
Nursing in Northern Canada
In 1924, Louise returned to Sweden, where she attempted to resume her former life as a socialite, but she soon felt bored and restless. Louise heard of a new Red Cross program that perfectly matched her experience with cold, isolation and deprivation. In the 1920s, there was a chronic lack of doctors and hospitals in Canada’s north. To remedy this, the Red Cross was opening scores of medical outposts, each staffed by a single trained nurse who would be the first responder to medical problems, from measles to life-threatening emergencies. In addition, the nurses were expected to educate rural residents about modern hygiene, child care and proper nutrition.
In 1927, Louise was assigned a huge territory in northeastern Ontario that stretched along the Mattawa River from the Ottawa River in the east to Lake Nipissing in the west. Her ability to speak four languages (English, French, Swedish, Russian) served her well. Her patients ranged from First Nations Algonquins to British, French, Scandinavian and Russian immigrants. Depending on the weather and geography, Louise made her rounds by foot, Model A Ford, open boat or dog sled.
In 1930, Louise came across The Red Terror in Russia, a book that confirmed what had happened to her husband. Gleb Kirilin and 800 other former Imperial Russian officers had been executed and buried in a mass grave by the Red Army only weeks after he and Louise had last seen each other. Instead of giving in to grief, Louise devoted herself to her work all the harder.
The Dionne Quintuplets and First Book
By 1934, Louise had become renowned for her professionalism and dedication. When the world’s first surviving quintuplets were born in an isolated log cabin near Callander, Ontario, their guardian, Dr. Allan Dafoe, immediately offered Louise the position as head nurse in a state-of-the-art nursery being specially constructed for the “miracle babies.”
At birth, the five tiny sisters collectively weighed 13 pounds, 6 ounces. Louise nursed them through their precarious first year, but unfortunately, as they grew, so did public interest. Now known around the world as the Dionne Quintuplets, a booming tourist complex nicknamed Quintland sprang up around the nursery. Louise disliked the exploitation of the girls as a tourist attraction by Dr. Dafoe and the Ontario government.
In 1935, Louise retired from nursing to write her first book, The Quintuplets’ First Year: the survival of the famous five Dionne babies and its significance for all mothers. Instead of trying to profit from the quintuplet’s fame, Louise’s book discussed the latest medical breakthroughs in an age when infant mortality was still high.
Second Marriage and War
In 1939, Louise married a local carpenter, Leonard (Len) Lawrence. In his spare time, he and two Scandinavian woodworkers constructed a log cabin on a six-acre wilderness plot overlooking Pimisi Bay near Rutherglen, Ontario. The Lawrences barely had time to settle in before Louise’s wedded bliss was shattered yet again by war.
In 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. Len Lawrence was among the tens of thousands of Canadians who immediately volunteered to serve with the Allies (see Second World War). For the second time in her life, Louise found herself left behind as her husband went off to war.
Ornithologist and Author
This time, however, instead of being surrounded by family, Louise was stranded in a tiny cabin in the wilderness. Most people under these circumstances would have abandoned the cabin and moved to a more populated area. Louise chose to stay and observe wildlife instead. A friend had given her a book titled Birds of Canada by Percy A. Taverner, Canada’s leading ornithologist of the time. Louise was so taken with Taverner’s informative and lively prose that she sent him a fan letter. To her surprise and delight, he sent a letter back encouraging her to take up the study of birds seriously.
Louise joined the American Ornithologists Union (AOU), a male-dominated association of professional bird scientists. Undaunted by their credentials, Louise began submitting scientific reviews and papers to the union about the local birds she observed around her Rutherglen cabin. Her elegant prose and astute observations, honed by her long service as a frontline nurse, stood up to the meticulous standards of the union. Over the years, she contributed more than 500 reviews and 17 scientific papers to the AOU. In 1954, Louise became the first Canadian woman to be named an Elective Member in the AOU, one of the highest distinctions of membership.
In 1945, Louise published her second book, The Loghouse Nest, a first-hand account of her life in the wilderness surrounded by birds and nature. That same year, her husband Len returned from his army service and resumed his job with the township. Louise continued to observe and write about nature, producing seven books in total over a span of 44 years.
Even well into the 1970s, Louise remained a familiar sight in the Pimisi Bay/Rutherglen area, walking around her property with binoculars and a notebook. She died in North Bay on 27 April 1992 at the age of 98.
Honours and Awards
In 1969, Louise was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing for her book, The Lovely and the Wild, and the Sir G.D. Roberts Special Award for literature from the Canadian Authors Association. Louise was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Laurentian University in Sudbury in 1971, and a scholarship was created in her name. Ten years later, she received the Francis H. Kortwright Award. In 1991, she was given the Doris Huestis Speirs Award by the Society of Canadian Ornithologists, awarded to individuals who have made an outstanding lifetime contribution to Canadian ornithology.
In 2014, a local conservation group called the Nipissing Naturalists Club (NNC) established the annual Louise de Kiriline Lawrence Nature Festival. The NNC was also the driving force behind the creation of an Ontario Heritage Trust plaque that was erected on the shores of Pimisi Bay in 2016, just a few hundred metres from Louise’s “log nest cabin.”
- The Quintuplets' First Year (1936)
- The Loghouse Nest (1945)
- A Comparative Life History Study of Four Species of Woodpeckers (1967)
- The Lovely and the Wild (1968)
- Mar: A Glimpse into the Natural Life of a Bird (1976)
- Another Winter, Another Spring: A Love Remembered (1977)
- To Whom the Wilderness Speaks (1980)