Col. Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie, first woman to reach rank of colonel in Canadian Army
Elizabeth Smellie rose from hospital night supervisor to high-ranking military officer. Inspiring the members of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), she then rose to Chief Superintendent of the Victorian Order of Nurses.
Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie, “Beth”, was born on March 22, 1884 in Port Arthur, near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. A member of a progressive family, Smellie’s father was Thomas Stuart Traill Smellie, a prominent physician, businessman, newspaperman, and politician in the Thunder Bay area. Perhaps following in the direction of her father’s steps, she took up a medical career in nursing.
Smellie a Nursing Sister in WWI
Attending the Johns Hopkins Training School for Nurses in Baltimore, Maryland, on graduation, Elizabeth worked at the McKellar General Hospital in Port Arthur. She must have been adept at her
profession – she earned the post of night supervisor in 1901 at age 17. When World War One erupted, the experienced nurse signed up as a Nursing Sister with the Royal Canadian Medical Corps in 1915. She put her valuable skills to use in England and France. Recognized for her efforts, she was mentioned in dispatches in 1916 and received the Royal Red Cross, First Class, Award in 1917.
Canadian Army Nursing Service Matron
Returning to her home soil, Elizabeth was initially on transport duty, then appointed Assistant to the Matron in Chief of the Canadian Army Nursing Service, a military position she held until discharged from duty in 1920. Expanding her medical knowledge, Elizabeth attended Simmons College in the Public Health Nursing course, along with taking post-graduate studies at McGill University in Montreal. She joined the Victorian Order of Nurses in January of 1924 and was appointed Chief Superintendent shortly after.
Smellie the Chief Superintendent of VON
A mention in the Public Health Nurse circular praised Elizabeth’s work with the VON. “It is interesting to note that the Order has promoted one of its own nurses, especially one of such outstanding ability, and with the strong support of her own nursing associates,” noted the British Journal of Nursing in 1926. “Miss Smellie was a Field Supervisor of the Order in Montreal and also as Instructor in Public Health Nursing in McGill University.” At the time of the mention, the VON had been in the business of health care in Canada for nearly 30 years. As Chief Superintendent, Elizabeth helped expand the Victorian Order of Nurses across Canada.
Colonel Smellie, Commander of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps
In 1940, Elizabeth Smellie took leave from the VON to rejoin the Canadian army, contributing her talents to help the Allied soldiers in World War Two. A year later, she was undertaking the advancement of women’s participation in the army, helping to organize the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. The CWACs performed many invaluable duties during the War, from clerical and administrative duties to driving, sail-makers, supply assistants and teletype operators. Elizabeth was placed in command of the new CWAC division in February 1942. She was promoted to Colonel in 1944, the first woman to reach the higher echelon in the Canadian army.
When the war was over, Colonel Smellie returned to her post leading the Victorian Order of Nurses. She retired in 1947 at age 63. Among the numerous military medals and other awards, Elizabeth was given the prestigious Commander of the British Empire honour. The Government of Ontario and City of Thunder Bay erected a historical plaque in her honour in front of McKellar General Hospital, and she was commemorated in the January 2000 postage stamp series, Millenium Collection: Humanitarians and Peacekeepers, sharing the stamp with Pauline Vanier, another Canadian humanitarian.
Spending her life dedicated to the health and well-being of Canadians, Smellie used her extraordinary nursing abilities at home and in the distant battlefields. Colonel Elizabeth L. Smellie, Registered Nurse, died in Toronto, Ontario on March 5, 1968. She was 84 years old.
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in September 2009. (C) Susanna McLeod