Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie

Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie, nurse (born 22 March 1884 in Port Arthur, ON; died 5 March 1968 in Toronto, ON). Elizabeth (Beth) Smellie wrote that she had been “occasionally addressed as Colonel, Doctor, Matron, Sister, or Miss Smellie” — each title revealing different aspects of her life and career. She served as a nursing sister during the First World War, rose through the ranks as a matron and then assistant to the matron-in-chief of the postwar army nursing service. She left the military to take public health courses, teach at the McGill University School for Graduate Nurses, and work for the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) before becoming the VON’s chief superintendent. The Canadian Army asked Smellie to return as matron-in-chief of its nursing service for the Second World War, as well as organizer of a new army division, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. (See also Nursing.)

Elizabeth Laurie Smellie
Elizabeth Laurie Smellie, first woman to hold the rank of colonel in the Canadian Army, 18 May 1943.

Family Origins

Elizabeth Smellie was born into an upper middle-class family of Scottish (specifically Orkneyan) descent. Her father, Dr. Thomas S.T. Smellie (1849–1925), was chief surgeon for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Port Arthur, Ontario, during construction work between White River and Port Arthur. He was also a physician and became a member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament in 1905. Her mother, Janet Eleanor Lawrie (deceased 1933), was active in the Fort William community.

Education and Early Career

Miss Smellie (as she was most often called) referred to her school life as “somewhat interrupted” because she lived in what was then an “unorganized territory.” After graduating from high school, she decided to become a nurse — partly due to the illnesses and deaths of a brother and a sister. Although her father was against it, she entered training at the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore, Maryland, graduating in 1909. After returning to Canada, she began her nursing career as night supervisor at the McKellar General Hospital in Fort William, after which she worked as a private duty nurse in Detroit, Michigan (1910–14). When Canada entered the First World War in August 1914, Miss Smellie was among the first to apply for an appointment to the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) nursing service — beginning a remarkable career as a Canadian military nurse that would span both world wars.

Career Highlights

First World War

Miss Smellie enlisted as a lieutenant/nursing sister with the CAMC at the age of 30 and was posted overseas in January 1915 to the Duchess of Connaught Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Taplow, England. She served as night supervisor and was in charge of the medical section at No. 2 Canadian General Hospital at Le Tréport, France (May 1915 – November 1916), before becoming assistant matron and then matron of Moore Barracks Hospital in England. Early in 1918, she returned to Canada on transport duty to become the assistant to matron-in-chief Margaret C. Macdonald (1918–20).

Interwar Period

As the CAMC demobilized and downsized the number of nurses needed postwar, Miss Smellie resigned to study public health nursing at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts (1920–21) — a new and expanding field of nursing in Canada. On completion of the course, she accepted an appointment as instructor at the McGill University School for Graduate Nurses (1921–23), while also serving as field supervisor for the Montréal branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). She then became assistant director of the School of Nursing. She left the teaching position to become the national chief superintendent of the VON in 1924, expanding the visiting nurse service across Canada.

Her work in public health led to an appointment with the Rockefeller Foundation during the early 1930s. The foundation sent her to survey and study the state of maternal welfare work in 12 countries. The American Public Health Association appointed her a fellow and also elected her as first vice-president sometime during the 1930s. These involvements and her international activities earned her an appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1934, presented by King George V.

Second World War

When the Second World War began, the Canadian Army requested that Miss Smellie return to military service, this time at the age of 56. The renamed medical service, the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps appointed her as matron-in-chief, Canada in July 1940. Not only was she responsible for over 3,600 nursing sisters spread across Canada, England, France, Italy and even Hong Kong — she was asked to organize a new army division for women, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in July 1941. She was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1942 and then made a full colonel in 1944 — the first woman to achieve this rank in Canada or any Allied forces. Regarding her role during this war, she wrote: “I had the privilege of being an older woman in the Army this time and sometimes they listened to what I said.” The nurses who served under her said she was efficient, disciplined and always a “lady.”

Postwar Period

Near the end of the war, Miss Smellie retired once again from the army (1944) to return to her position as head of the VON for three more years until May 1947. For a brief period (1947–48), she served as the western supervisor of Veterans Affairs. She referred to herself as the “most retired” nurse in Canada due to her many roles in both civilian and military nursing.

Elizabeth Smellie died in March 1968, just short of her 84th birthday. She was buried in Thunder Bay's Riverside Cemetery.

Honours and Awards

  • Mentioned in Despatches, 1916
  • Royal Red Cross (First Class), 1917
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1934
  • Mary Agnes Snively Memorial Medal, Canadian Nurses Association, 1938
  • Honorary degree, Doctor of Laws and Languages, University of Western Ontario, 1942
  • Ontario Historical Plaque, Ontario Heritage Trust and the City of Thunder Bay, 1975
  • Canada Post’s Millennium Collection of Humanitarians and Peacekeepers, special postage stamp issue, 2000

Further Reading

  • Cynthia Toman, An Officer and a Lady: Canadian Military Nursing and the Second World War (2007)

  • Barbara Logan Tunis, In Caps and Gowns: The Story of the School for Graduate Nurses, McGill University, 1920-1964 (1966)