Florence Murray responds to the Halifax Explosion

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By Dr. Jock Murray

and Janet Murray

It was a quiet, sunny, winter morning when fourth-year Dalhousie medical student Florence Murray dressed and prepared to go for her clinical teaching at the hospital. It was Thursday, the 6th of December, 1917.

Florence was excited. Soon she would be able to achieve her goal of going overseas as a medical missionary. She was born in Pictou Landing, daughter of a divinity student. She also wanted to be a Presbyterian minister, but the ministry was not accepting women. She had heard stories from visiting missionaries, including medical missionary, Dr. Kate MacMillan, about the work in foreign missions and decided to be a medical missionary. Unlike other medical schools, Dalhousie Medical School had been training women physicians for decades and she enrolled in 1914 just as World War One broke out. Many of her classmates began to drop out to enlist and the class, where she was the only woman, was down to 10 students. Wanting to also help, in her spare time, she volunteered with the Red Cross making bandages and preparing packages for the soldiers at the front.

On that December morning, as she was getting ready for her time on the hospital wards, there was an enormous explosion as the Belgian relief ship Imo, loaded with supplies, and the Mont Blanc, loaded with explosives, collided in the Narrows linking Halifax Harbour with the Bedford Basin. She said, “Suddenly, the house shook, the windows blew in. I went outside and found people streaming with blood.” She rushed to the nearby druggist and asked him for medical supplies. He said to take anything she needed. She then headed for the recently-built Camp Hill Hospital to see if she could help.

The commanding officer asked, “Has your class had instruction in anesthetics?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Go to the operating room and give anesthetics.”

She didn’t have time to explain that she had missed the sessions on anesthesia her classmates attended. Her first patient was a six year old who had lost both eyes and Florence had to guess how much anesthetic a child would need. She gave anesthetics all that day. The next morning the commanding officer made her an official anesthetist to the hospital. At least she had more experience than Anna Laing, only a few months into her first year of medical studies, who was assigned to set fractures and suture wounds for the next two weeks. Florence and her classmates spent long days assisting the physicians and surgeons, an educational training by fire, which they carried out magnificently, and were given praise for their role later. The students found it hard to concentrate when they finally got back to classes in the new year.

The Halifax Explosion took 2,000 lives, seriously injured 9,000 more, and left 25,000 homeless. The next day, December 7, the city was hit by a major snowstorm. Halifax and other Nova Scotian doctors and nurses were assisted in the next week by trainloads of medical personnel from other parts of Canada and the eastern United States, but in the initial days the serious medical care was given by the local physicians and nurses, military medical personnel and medical students.

Florence’s education by fire was not over. In her fifth year of medical school the pandemic of influenza, also known as the Spanish Flu, arrived in Nova Scotia and Florence was again assigned front line duty. At 11 p.m. one night she received a telephone call from the chief medical officer, Dr. W.H. Hattie, who was also one of her teachers. Hattie was a Pictou Academy graduate and we wrote in an earlier article about his heroic role in containing the pandemic in Nova Scotia.

“I want you to take the early train tomorrow to Lockeport,” he said. “Twenty-five people have died in that small fishing village and now the doctor has got the disease.”

“I’d like to help,” she said, “but I’m a medical student without medical equipment or license to practice.”

Hattie said he understood that, but the situation was desperate, as so many doctors are still overseas, and there was no one else to send. He said she could use the doctor’s equipment and Hattie would be available by phone if she got into any trouble.

Florence found that the community had set up an emergency hospital in the Orange Hall. She phoned for two nurses to come and assist her. Two days later two nurses arrived. One of them was already ill with influenza, so was admitted to the hospital. She drove around the surrounding district, stopping anywhere a white towel was tied to the front door, signalling that someone was sick with the flu.

She wrote later that one village man said, “No petticoat doctor is coming near me!” He changed his mind when he got sick. The pandemic had hit its peak and there were no further deaths.

Florence would go on to a remarkable career as a medical missionary in Manchuria and Korea, described in her autobiography, “At the Foot of Dragon Hill” (E.P. Dutton and Co., New York, 1975). At the end of her career she received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Pine Hill Divinity College in Halifax, the Order of Civil Merit from Korea, and a gold medal from the King of Denmark for her service on a Red Cross ship during the Korean War. In a career under difficult conditions she said she had to be a jack-of-all-trades. Some of those skills were learned during the Halifax Explosion and the 1918 pandemic while she was still a medical student.

Dr. T. Jock Murray is a graduate of Pictou Academy and former Dean of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Janet Murray is a graduate of Mount Saint Vincent, majoring in philosophy and a diploma in journalism. She is former Chair of the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University.