First Canadian woman army colonel oversaw creation of CWAC

Colonel Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie. CWM 20000105-054 Beaverbrook Collection of War Art Canadian War Museum

Colonel Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie. CWM 20000105-054 Beaverbrook Collection of War Art Canadian War Museum

Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs ~

In 1944, Colonel Elizabeth Lawrie (Beth) Smellie became the first woman to reach the rank of colonel in the Canadian Army, a high point in a truly remarkable career with many accomplishments in the field of both military and public health care.

Col Smellie entered the First World War as a nursing sister, worked tirelessly between the wars on public health matters, and by the close of the Second World War she was Matron-in-Chief of Nursing for the entire Canadian Army. She was described as a genius of organization, efficient, disciplined and always a “lady” by those with whom she served.

Born in 1884 in Port Arthur, Ontario (now part of Thunder Bay, Ontario), Col Smellie was the daughter of a frontier physician who was a chief surgeon for the Canadian Pacific Railway as it was being built, and who was also a businessman and politician.

Col Smellie’s desire to become a nurse was strongly influenced by her father’s vocation and the illnesses and deaths of two siblings. Despite her father’s discouragement, she left home to study nursing at Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing in Baltimore, Maryland. At the age of 25 in 1909, diploma in hand, she returned to Canada to as the night supervisor at McKellar General Hospital in her home town, followed by a stint as a private nurse.

First World War service
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Col Smellie was one of the first to be accepted to the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps as a nursing sister.

Nursing sisters were enlisted as officers at the rank of lieutenant, numbering about 3,100 during the First World War. She served in military hospitals in the regions of Taplow, England, and Le Treport, France, prior to becoming Matron of Moor Barracks Hospital in Shorncliffe, England, where thousands of Canadian soldiers were treated.

She returned to Canada in 1918 and became the Canadian Army’s Assistant Matron-in-Chief.

Leading roles in public health care between the World Wars
With the Great War ended, she left the Army in 1920 and at the youthful age of 36, took courses in the new field of public health, and then went on to become Director of the School of Nursing at McGill University.

In 1924 she left teaching to become National Chief Superintendent of the Victorian Order of Nurses. With doctors few and far between, she directed the expansion of the Victorian Order of Nurses, which provided home-based health care, initially to poor and isolated Canadians.

Between the wars, Col Smellie was chosen by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1930 to conduct a major study on infant and maternal welfare in 12 countries, and contributed to international nursing and public health organizations. These led to her appointment as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1934.

Col Smellie, at this point 56 years of age, returned to military service at the request of the Army in 1940. She was named Matron-in-Chief of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps Nursing Service and led more than 3,600 nursing sisters spread across Canada, England, France, Italy and Hong Kong.

Creation of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps
In 1941, she was asked to organize a new army division: the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), essentially becoming its first member. The women of the CWAC were badly needed to take over traditionally male support roles such as office clerks, cooks, transport drivers, radio operators, bookkeepers and lab assistants so that the shrinking pool of men could be deployed to combat. “Serving so that men may fight,” as the phrase went, resulted in more than 21,000 women being recruited, enough to release the equivalent of a full division of male soldiers for combat duty.

Col Smellie travelled across Canada to recruit women officers from each of Canada’s 11 military districts at the time, no small task as there were not many professional women from which to choose.

Return to civilian life in public health care
Following the Second World War, she returned to the Victorian Order of Nurses and spent three more years in public health. She retired in 1947 at age 63, having never married.

Col Smellie passed away in Toronto in 1968 at the age of 83. A historical marker was installed in 1975 at the site of the McKellar General Hospital by the Ontario Heritage Foundation in Thunder Bay, Ontario. When the hospital building was closed, the plaque was moved to Waverly Park, overlooking the Major Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, VC, MC Armoury (the O’Kelly VC Armoury) on Park Avenue in Thunder Bay.

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  1. Marika Pirie says:

    Elizabeth Lawrie (Beth) Smellie one of 5 Canadian Nursing Sisters awarded the Royal Red Cross, First Class, 26 October 1917 #WW1

    Link to 26 October 1917 newspaper report:

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