Voluntary Veil: The Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment in the First World War

the following blog post was written by Museum of Health Care Curator Maxime Chouinard

Today, the Museum of Health Care is unveiling its newest onsite exhibition titled Trench Menders: Health Care in the First World War. This exhibition centers on the work of the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the Great War and its accomplishments in the fields of medicine, dentistry, nursing and many others. Although the CAMC was essential to the wellbeing of the soldiers, it is easy to forget that other groups also participated in the effort and often received very little attention after the War. One of those is the Voluntary Aid Detachment or VAD.

CWM_MCG 19920143-009

Posters such as these would have decorated St.John Ambulance offices during World War 1 and convinced more than 2000 women to join the VAD. CWM 19920143-009, George Metcalf Archival Collection © Canadian War Museum / Musée canadien de la guerre

Before the mid 19th century, women had a discreet but ever-present role on the battlefield, mostly as camp followers. When women such as Florence Nightingale started to demonstrate the value of military nurses, armies began to slowly, but surely assign them to their medical services.

The Voluntary Aid Detachment arrived at a pivotal time in history. The VAD was organized mainly through the Red Cross and especially in Canada through the Order of St. John. The Detachment offered an opportunity for women to participate more actively in the war effort. While working class women would find employment in the war industries, in the field, or keeping the family business running while the men were away at war, voluntary work was not an option.  Upper class women would often choose to help  raise funds or fill white collar positions left vacant, However, that was often not enough for many of them who desired a more active role. Continue reading

Christmas Seals and Advertising for Health

the following blog post was written by 2014-2015 collections volunteer Emily Welsh

It’s that time of year again. A time for gathering with friends and family, holiday cheer and generosity. In the world of health care one of the most recognizable forms of Christmas charity comes in the form of the Christmas Seals. The idea originated in Copenhagen in 1903.

The first Christmas seal was produced in Denmark 1904. It featured an image of Denmark’s Queen. Source: Wikipedia Public Domain

The first Christmas seal was produced in Denmark 1904. It featured an image of Denmark’s Queen. Source: Wikipedia Public Domain

As the story goes, a postman by the name of Einar Holboell was working late one December night sorting the piles of Christmas mail. He happened to look out the window as two homeless children passed by and when he returned to his work Holboell had an idea; what if people could buy extra stamps for their mail and the proceeds would go to charity? The following Christmas, after designing the seals, Holboell and his coworkers sold four million stickers to the Danes.

The question became which children to aid. They decided to donate the proceeds to aid the countless children affected by tuberculosis, beginning the construction of two hospitals which would treat the children.[1] Continue reading

A Hair-Razing History of the Beard: Facial Hair and Men’s Health from the Crimean War to the First World War

*the following guest blog was written by Brendan Cull, 2014 Curatorial Volunteer

The period following the Crimean War and until the end of the First World War marks an interesting time for men’s fashion and health. During the Victorian period, beards and other facial hair styles enjoyed resurgence in popularity which had not been seen since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.[1] While the facial hair trend waned by the end of the nineteenth century,[2] enthusiasm for debating the cleanliness and overall health of bearded and non-bearded men remained strong. With increased attention to the face, and more specifically the hair on it, doctors, nurses, soldiers and the general public engaged in spirited discussions of men’s health.

The popularity of the beard in Victorian Great Britain has often been attributed to the Crimean War (1853-1856). This war consisted of a number of armed conflicts between Russia and Turkey, as well as Turkey’s allies (England, France and Sardinia). While stationed in the Crimean Peninsula, many men in the British Army began to grow beards. Partly a fashion statement, long “Crimean beards” (pictured below) also had the practical advantage of keeping soldiers warm in the local winter environment.[3] When the war ended and British troops returned home to England, the public adopted the look with great enthusiasm. Although Crimean War veterans can be credited with the resulting popularization of the bearded masculine look, interest in growing beards was already starting to gain momentum within academic and political circles back home.[4] However, with the return of successful soldiers sporting thick beards, the style became a common fixture of the modern, masculine Victorian man for approximately the next fifty years. Continue reading

Mandrakes, from Mythology to Museum Collectable

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

“… Not poppy, nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday.”

Shakespeare: Othello III.iii [1]

Earmuff-clad, Harry Potter and his friends wrench unyielding mandrake plants from their cozy earthen beds to replant them in pots large enough to accommodate their growing bodies. The mandrakes are described as having anthropomorphic forms and features. While the wails of the adult mandrakes are fatal, Professor Sprout assures her herbology students that the cries of the young plants would only “knock them out for a few hours.” [2] As the narrative of the Chamber of Secrets unfolds, the mandrake’s power to revive victims of petrification proves crucial to the plot.

As Harry Potter was (as you may have guessed) a much-adored part of my childhood (and, ahem, adulthood) I was familiar with J.K. Rowling’s vision of mandrakes. Imagine my delight when I learned, while sifting through pharmaceutical artefacts within the Museum’s collection, that the Museum of Health Care possesses eight mandrake medication containers or trading cards.

Flint's Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care,   996001419

Flint’s Mandrake Pills trade card, N. Ballin ,1883, Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 996001419

What, I thought to myself, were such whimsical fancies doing outside the herbology classroom and in my very own hands? Fans of Rowling’s series are likely aware that many characters, names, and objects within Harry’s world were inspired by a variety of mythological traditions. As I take you on a whirlwind tour of various perceptions of the mandrake, you will discover how firmly rooted Rowling’s mandrakes are within long histories of medical, literary and folklore practices. Continue reading

Snakes, Mistakes, and Mythology! The Use of the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus in Modern Medicine

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

While handling an artifact from the Museum’s collection, a familiar sight piqued my curiosity. Stamped onto a pin awarded by the Canadian Medical Association was a snake coiled around a staff. I had seen the same symbol on the badges of emergency health service workers, emblazoned on ambulances, and on pharmaceutical logos. I wondered, what were the origins this symbol? Why was it significant to medical organizations? Through what process had so many health professionals adopted it as a representation of their work?


Medical pins from the Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.3p5, 1900-1930

Medical pins from the Collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.3p5, 1900-1930

Medical pins from the collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.2p4, c. 1908-1933

Medical pins from the collection of the Museum of Health Care, 1976.33.2p4, c. 1908-1933

Continue reading

Mental Health: Tracing the History of Stigma

The following blog post was written by Abbey Cressman, Summer 2014 Public Programs Assistant  

When researching ancient diseases, their symptoms, and treatments, I have often been struck by the correlation between the magnitude of lives lost and the health care standards of the time. I have read staggering statistics that throughout the nineteenth century, the number of soldiers killed in battle was far outweighed by the number soldiers lost to diseases . Since then, standards of hygiene have improved tremendously, there has been a powerful push towards improving public health resources, and diseases like smallpox that plagued our ancestors are virtually eradicated. What seems to be the next epidemic though is dangerously invisible in its symptoms, but just as potent in its hold; it is one of the leading causes of death among Canadian youth from ages 15-24, and directly affects 20% of all Canadians.[1] Continue reading

Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

Amidst a recent donation of artefacts from Parks Canada Agency’s collection to the Museum of Health Care, a woman’s face peers up at mine. “Yours in Health,” the line of slanted cursive below her steady gaze reads. Behind this seemingly innocuous packaging lays a historical figure whose life and work continues to intrigue to the present day; a woman at the intersection of gender, medical, advertising and regulatory history and of great importance to those who study these topics.

One of two Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company artefact recent  donated to  the Museum

Recent donation to Museum of Health Care collection.

Lydia E. Pinkham was born in 1819 to a Quaker family in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her family were avid abolitionists, at one time hosting Frederick Douglass in their home. They were also followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian who taught about the virtues of vegetarianism and means of direct communication with the dead. Although she only turned to the commercial creation of medicine during the last eight years of her life, Pinkham experienced within that brief timeframe meteoric success as a producer of medicines marketed exclusively for women. Her vegetable compound became “the most successful patent medicine of the century.” [1] Her remedies claimed to treat ailments ranging from menstrual cramps and reproductive disorders to menopausal symptoms. Within her lifetime, Pinkham became a cultural icon. [2] Speaking of her fame within a reflective biography published in the Globe and Mail decades after her death, the author wrote “Mrs. Pinkham was the first business woman in the United States to become widely known. Her features, as we have said, became better known than the features of any of her contemporaries. There could hardly have been a person in the United States-and perhaps in Canada, too-who would not have recognized her by sight in a crowd.” [3] By 1898, fifteen years after her death, her most successful product, a vegetable compound, had become one of the most heavily advertised products in the United States. Indeed, a biographer has compared the familiarity of Pinkham’s advertisements within turn-of-the-century North America to the brand recognition enjoyed by McDonald’s Corporation by modern Americans and Canadians. [4]  Continue reading


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