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Who was named the first matron of the Canadian Army Medical Corps and was also Canada's first recipient of the Royal Red Cross?

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Known as Canada's own "Florence Nightingale", Georgina Fane Pope (1 January 1862 – 6 June 1938) was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. As the daughter of the Honourable William H. Pope, one of the Canadian Fathers of Confederation, she was a member of one of Canada's most distinguished families. While she could have easily lived a comfortable lifestyle, she chose instead a career in nursing. After training and working at New York's Bellevue Hospital Training School that was inspired by the teachings of the British nursing legend Florence Nightingale – Pope was selected in 1899 to superintend Canada's military nurses who cared for wounded and diseased soldiers in the South African War. The Canadian army was the first in the world to give its nursing sisters officer status, equivalent to the rank and pay of lieutenant. She returned to Canada in January 1901, remaining in the Reserves, but was sent for a second tour of duty in March 1902 and remained until the end of the war. In 1903, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her exceptional devotion and competency in the performance of her nursing duties during the South African War. Nursing Sister Georgina Pope was the first Canadian to receive this esteemed military decoration since it was established in 1883 by Queen Victoria.

Appointed to the permanent Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1906, two years later she became Canada's first matron, having charge of all Canadian military nurses. During the course of the First World War, she was stationed principally at Halifax to train and send over 3,100 nurses to France and Flanders. Matron Pope served briefly overseas to work near Ypres beginning in September 1917 and later in England until invalided home in December 1918. "Her previous health was otherwise good until February 1918 when she reported sick" at the 2nd Canadian Stationary Hospital complaining of "frequent headaches and attacks of dizziness", "is easily startled by any sudden noise", "sleeps only about three hours a night", and "tires easily on slight exertion." The strain of active service took a heavy toll on her health. An initial Medical Board held in London, England confirmed her diagnosed condition as arteriosclerosis and neurasthenia or "debility after Shell Shock" and a subsequent Medical Board in Canada declared her permanently unfit for duty and recommended she be granted a pension due to her service-related disability. As Matron, she officially retired at the equivalent rank of captain on 1 March 1919 at the age of 57 with a total military service of 19 years, of which 11 were spent at home and the remainder abroad in South Africa, France and England. Georgina Pope lived as a semi-invalid in her hometown of Charlottetown and died there on 6 June 1938 at the age of 75. Three days following her passing, she lay in State at Government house as a mark of respect. Her body was then removed to St. Dunstan's Basilica where a Solemn Requiem High Mass was celebrated to be followed by the conduct of services at the grave where she was buried at the Roman Catholic Cemetery with full military honours.

Georgina Pope's legacy is well remembered. In 1983, she was designated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a person of national historic significance and three years later, the Board erected a commemorative tablet on the façade of the 1911 Armoury building located in Summerside, Prince Edward Island. Shown in the photograph is a bust of Georgina Pope that is part of the Valiants Memorial located near the National War Memorial in Ottawa. This is part of a collection of fourteen figures unveiled in November 2006 depicting individuals who have played a role in major conflicts throughout Canadian history. In 2012, during the year of her 150th birthday, she was honoured by the Royal Canadian Mint with a Five Dollar silver coin bearing a portrait of her and three military women from the last century whose careers Pope helped to pioneer. The military medals awarded to her can be viewed at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.

On this day, 1 January 2022, let us commemorate the 160th birthday of Georgina Fane Pope, R.R.C., and continue to honour the legacy of military service and dedication of Canada's own "Florence Nightingale".

André M. Levesque

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