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Dorothy Ellen Allan



The following are excerpts and summaries from a transcript of an oral history, stored in the Nova Scotia Archives under the heading 'The Barbara Keddy Collection of Oral Histories of Nurses from the 1920s and 1930s'. This interview with Dorothy Allan was conducted in July 1983 by Barbara Keddy. The entire audio and a transcription can be found at the Archives. As nursing education in Yarmouth is celebrating 100 years, it is fitting that Mrs. Allan's history should be among those past educators to receive acclaim.


Dorothy Allan's professional career includes Director of Nursing, Yarmouth Regional Hospital, and Director of Nursing Education, Yarmouth School of Nursing (previously known as Yarmouth Training School for Nurses). She was also a pioneer in public school based health education in Nova Scotia. Mrs. Allan was awarded an Honourary Lifetime Membership in the Registered Nurses Association of Nova Scotia  in 1978 and was also the recipient of a College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia Centennial Award in 2009 for her contribution to nursing. In September 2013 she was recognized as one of the 65 outstanding graduates of the Dalhousie University School of Nursing.  


Early years

Dorothy Ellen Coggins was born in 1913 in Ashmore, Digby County. Her mother was a school teacher and her father was a fisherman. Her early education was in a two room schoolhouse where she obtained a provincial Grade 11 diploma. She stated that she always wanted to be a nurse so after high school she applied to and was accepted in the Yarmouth Training School for Nurses, fifty miles away from her home.   


Preparations for leaving home and becoming a student nurse

The requirements for entrance to the school was a Grade 10 high school certificate, a short resume stating why she chose nursing as a profession, and a doctor's certificate.


Prospective students had to provide their own chest x-rays for which there was a cost, buy their own black shoes, stockings, all their text books plus the uniform material. Her mother used the material sent to her with a pattern to make her uniforms. "They were a navy or a dark blue chambray, white cuffs and of course, later on, we had hard collars- white hard collars". The skirt of the uniform had to be 11 inches from the floor and the apron had to be 2 inches below the uniform dress.


"My family provided this for me but again, I was the oldest of the family and with others coming along often I really felt rather badly about accepting this because I thought it was a sacrifice on their part".


The life of a student nurse

Dorothy Coggins arrived by train on September 4, 1931, accompanied by her trunk, at the nurses' residence on Vancouver St. and was met by a senior student at the door. The 'Home Mother' kept a strict house with great authoritarian power which she wielded whenever she thought necessary. Students had to obey the rules or suffer the consequences. The regulations were often difficult to live with; for example, students could not leave their rooms after 8 p.m. during the six-month probationary period, after which it was 10 p.m. There was little rebelling for fear of being sent home.


Miss Coggins' class consisted of eight students. However, only four graduated:

"...one was 'let go'. In those days it was for mere trifles really. One failed her exams. Another, her attitude wasn't that required of a nurse".  It is assumed, but not known, that the fourth left of her own accord.


The hierarchy among the students was overt. Juniors feared the seniors and 'probies' (the most junior who had only been 'in training' for 6 months) were the least powerful of the lot. Junior students were expected to stand for seniors and even allow them on an elevator before them. A militaristic atmosphere shaped the milieu.


"...one of the duties we had as a probationer that terrified me---we had to take our turn calling the other nurses. We were called on the phone at six o'clock. We had to answer the phone, make sure we had heard it and were awake. We had to go about, close the windows, turn on the heat, because we had to turn the heat off during the winter. In those days, again, this would be economic--because of the economic situation, turn on the heat, call the nurses...we would be blamed if they overslept".


The life of a 'probie' was a difficult one, without power and exploitable. During what was called Duty Week they were expected to walk over half a mile, often on sidewalks which were not ploughed in winter to take the mail to the post office and later to collect it again. This continued until the next class came in for which they were grateful.


The work of the student nurse: A source of free labour

The hospital was coined a 'cottage hospital' with 50 beds. The overall person in charge was the Director of Nurses during the day time while in the evening a night Supervisor was the charge nurse. The head nurse was a senior student in her third year. The head nurse had authority to reprimand, do evaluations and even suggest time be taken away for very minor infractions. But it was the Director of Nursing who was the most feared:

"She was called a Superintendent then. She was Superintendent of Nurses. We were terrified of her, truly terrified of her. Other than meeting her the first morning, I don't recall too much of that.  My next experience with her was while we were making beds. We were being taught... we had one nurse in charge of us and she was the 'full school of nursing'. We were making beds... we had been taught to make beds and this was a practice session and after we had made these beds--and there were lots of empty beds during those days, the Superintendent of Nurses came in and if she could--if the bed was loose enough that she could grab the sheets she would pull them off and put them on the floor...had to start all over again and when we started over again we were timed and this amount of time was taken off of our two hours off duty". This, of course, is reminiscent of 'boot camp' in the military.

The students had one afternoon a week off that began at 1 p.m. if they were lucky, and three hours off on Sundays at any time throughout that day. Working hours were from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Summer holidays  were only two weeks long. During their training, an allowance was given of $6.00 per month, after which it was gradually increased to $7.00, then $8.00 the last of the three years. Money was taken off the allowance for broken equipment such as a thermometer or even a plate. Equipment had to be counted and signed for and re-counted and again signed for when returned.

The first day of training began with breakfast at 7 a.m. and in the classroom by 8 a.m., in uniform to meet the Director of Nursing. After this the students were sent to a ward. A senior told them what time they would be off duty and then she left them, without a tour of the wards.

" But, I do recall answering a bell.  I was told to answer it and I went out on what was then called a sun porch. It was the male ward I was assigned to and this patient asked for a bottle.. The only bottle I had ever known or heard of was a hot water bottle, so I went to the utility room, filled the hot water bottle and took it to him, no cover. I knew nothing about a cover, putting a cover on it.  He took it and said "Thank you".  I came out, not realizing that what I had done when shortly after, the  same bell rang again and this time he asked for a urinal. I didn't know what that was so I  came back to one of the other nurses, not the senior nurse, and I said  "this patient wanted something  and I didn't know what it was but it sounded like 'urine'. So she gave me this utensil covered and she said "take this I'm sure this is what he wants" I still didn't know what I had given him...That's all I remember about my first day on duty".

And so the daily regime continued:


"I remember making all the dressings, making cotton balls. Our technique, apparently, must have been very good because in those days we had no antibiotics, no intravenous. It was good nursing care, good aseptic technique. We had terrible wounds to look after. Gunshot wounds...There seemed to be more hunting accidents in those days. We had a lot of hunting accidents, fishing accidents, men with their legs jammed between boats".

Tuberculosis was a great concern among nurses and in fact, Mrs. Allan stated that there was an outbreak during her time and two of her classmates contacted it; one died as a result. Later it was discovered that the head cook was the source of the disease. Student nurses had to take turns working in the diet kitchen doing what was referred to as "invalid cooking". When they did their senior dietetics they even made "fancy things" one of which she called "birds in a nest".



Among the hospitals where the student nurses spent time away from Yarmouth specializing were St. John for tuberculosis for two months, and three months each in two hospitals in Rhode Island. She stated that the Lying-In Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where students learned about obstetrical nursing was a very good experience and a "more or less relaxed, happy time". However, on another affiliation there she recalled that diphtheria and typhoid were difficult diseases with which they had to cope. Regarding typhoid  treatment she said:

"Oh, baths, temperature baths. I can recall you gave cold water baths. You ran a cold tub, put ice in the tub and you were supposed to bring their temperatures down by at least two degrees. You kept cold face cloths under the arm pits, in the groin and these were changed every few minutes. You gave them their bath then a cold alcohol rub, wrapped them in blankets because they would perspire as their temperatures were so high and then take their temperature again. You went from one patient to the other and did this continually."

The students returned from these other hospitals matured, experienced and ready to assume the responsibilities of senior student, in their third year, anticipating graduation.


Graduation and beyond

Mrs. Allan said that the doctors were very wonderful and "We thought of them, I think as gods really. But they were wonderful. They were fatherly toward us. We thought, I'm sure, they all had halos. We worshipped them". These physicians were the instructors, each giving lectures from their own specialty.

However at their very small graduation in a theatre, an elderly doctor was the guest speaker and he read a chapter from Dickens on Sairey Gamp, the alcoholic nurse. He hadn't had time to prepare a speech of his own:

"This was his lecture. This was his speech. So he read all about Sairey Gamp. He did a full chapter. We thought this was very typical of the doctor. We accepted it; we enjoyed it. There were no festivities for us. Not even a dance. Again because of the small group and there just wasn't any money"


After graduation there still wasn't any work for her so she became a nurse companion for a woman who had dementia, following this eight or nine months work she married. Then Mrs. Allan did a great deal of specializing, mostly maternity cases. Nursing jobs became more plentiful during the war years. But then, personal tragedy overtook the young family as her husband developed tuberculosis. She said she had to take the children away and although she had not worked for some years while she was raising children her husband was offered a bed in the Kentville Sanatorium (where there was a waiting list for up to 6 months) if she would agree to work there as a nurse, which she did. The work at the 'San' developed her nursing skills and from

then on she re-entered the nursing field, supporting a young family as her husband was recovering.

Back in Yarmouth with the family re-united Mrs. Allan was the sole breadwinner and she developed the role of a school nurse.


" You looked after children that were ill. The teachers gradually started bringing children to you, if they had a complaint you made home visits".


Immunizations, dental clinic work, orthopaedic clinics --- the list of the duties she developed were numerous. She was a pioneer in public health/school nursing. But in the summers she worked in the hospital and was now anxious to be back to active nursing.


Yarmouth Regional Hospital and her pivotal role

A new challenge arose: Dalhousie University was offering a one year diploma in Nursing Service Administration and she was offered the opportunity to take it and would have a job waiting for her when she returned. This was now 1960 and as she was about to finish in 1961 a call came from the Administrator of the hospital to tell her she would be both the Director of Nursing and Nursing Education of the new hospital now to be named Yarmouth Regional Hospital. While this disturbed her somewhat she felt she had little choice as she had been sponsored by the hospital. So began her career in a prestigious position in a large hospital in south western Nova Scotia.

Nursing education and nursing service were rapidly changing and Mrs. Allan was at the forefront of it all. Doctors were chagrined that nurses no longer stood for them as they walked by and nurses were expected to be treated as partners, not subservient; shift work was becoming more flexible, head nurses were registered nurses whom she sent on courses to learn about new roles; supervisors became qualified in their fields of expertise-- the times they were a changin'. Most importantly: "my own growth- I grew. I learned, I think, every day, every day that I was there. You learn by your mistakes. I made many mistakes".

Maybe she did, but her contributions were numerous and her impact far reaching. When she arrived back from Dalhousie I was struggling as a nurse instructor in the School without personal adequate preparation. She brought with her two recent graduates of the Dalhousie diploma course in Nursing Education, Winifred MacDonnell and Audrey Ridgley, and the three of them

inspired me to further my own career. I am forever grateful to this woman for her graciousness, intellect, and kindnesses to me over many years.

As I concluded this interview, 30 years ago, I asked her if she would do now anything differently in her career if she had it to do over again. Recently, by phone, now in her 100th year, I asked her the same thing. Her answer was somewhat the same. This is what she said in 1983:

"I don't know. We often think this. I doubt if I would have done anything differently. I sometimes wonder if I would have married that early and yet looking back, I wouldn't have had the children and they have been so splendid- their understanding and moral support".


If anyone wants to honour Dorothy Allan, they are invited to visit the bench at the Yarmouth Lighthouse that was built in her honour for her 100th birthday by her son John. Her son Wilfred invites anyone who sits on this bench to take a picture and send it to him for his website: http://wilfredallan.com/moms-bench/  

These excerpts taken from a more lengthy interview are dedicated to Wilfred (my high school classmate), Joan and John Allan. Readers are invited to hear the oral rendition at the Nova Scotia Public Archives.


Thank you to Gloria Stephens, President of Nursing History Nova Scotia for the impetus for writing this article and her initial help with summarizing certain events in the life of Dorothy Allan.
 Dorothy Coggins Allan died August 3, 2014.

Check out the following link: Yarmouth Nursing Rings