Joan Fitzgerald – A Female Canadian Experience
By: Carla-Jean Stokes
Carla-Jean Stokes has a Masters of History from Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as a Masters in Photograph Preservation and Collections Management from Toronto Metropolitan University. Her MA, “British Official First World War Photographs, 1916-1918: Arranging and Contextualizing a Collection of Prints at the Art Gallery of Ontario,” won the 2015 Photographic Historical Society of Canada thesis prize. Since then, she’s worked as a writer, researcher, lecturer, and curator, and is fascinated by less-prominent moments and figures in military history.
Mary Joan Fitzgerald was born on June 21, 1920, to James and Nina Fitzgerald. She served in the Canadian forces for more than 30 years, taking on incredible opportunities and travelling the world. Fitzgerald held positions in the Canadian Armed Forces, but her tour of duty as Canada’s first Korean War flight nurse is the focus of this essay. It allows us to ask how Fitzgerald’s story reveals the ways in which Canadian women’s roles – at war and in peace – had evolved by the time Canada entered the Korean War.
Just two years prior to his daughter’s birth, James Fitzgerald was wounded during the Hundred Days campaign that helped bring the First World War to a conclusion. He was awarded the Military Cross and returned home to marry Nina Chisholm in Halifax, Nova Scotia. James returned to his pre-war job as a clerk, and the pair had five children together – three of whom went on to have military careers of their own.
Joan Fitzgerald’s story highlights the availability of roles open to Canadian women by the time she entered the military as a “nursing sister.” Historians have often noted that most military positions were not considered socially acceptable for women wanting to preserve their “femininity.”[i] However, nursing was considered a natural choice for women because it involved caring for others. In fact, during much of the 20th century, men were barred from working as military nurses. But by operating within that traditional sphere, women like Fitzgerald (and there were few women like her) could sidestep traditional gender roles – both social and professional – to enjoy exciting and fulfilling careers that offered a small degree of agency and prestige.
Fitzgerald was educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a Halifax Catholic school founded in 1849. She likely entered nursing school at the earliest possible opportunity – most schools required applicants to be at least 18 years of age and to have completed secondary school up to their junior year (Grade 11 in most of Canada, and Grade 12 in Ontario). These requirements meant that the vast majority of nursing students were white and middle class – they were more likely to have received such education and could afford the cost of training without pay for several years.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s (when Fitzgerald was attending nursing school), programs tended to be three years long and involved a combination of coursework, examinations, and hospital work. In fact, during this era, most hospital medical workers were students, but very few could expect a hospital job after their program was complete. The hospital system relied on the inexpensive labour that nurses provided, while many graduates were obligated to then find employment in fields like private home care, food services, retail, or – in Fitzgerald’s case – military nursing, following the onset of war in 1939.
At the same time, Fitzgerald can be viewed as a woman who came from an active Canadian military family. As mentioned, her father was a decorated veteran of the First World War, while both brothers served in the military (James served in the Royal Canadian Navy, while Jack served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was killed during the Second World War). Fitzgerald’s motivations for choosing a career in the Canadian military – during an era in which few women chose such professions – are not entirely clear. However, family traditions and values could certainly be a reason Fitzgerald joined – and stayed – in the military.
Fitzgerald entered the Second World War as a lieutenant nursing sister of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1942. Though most women were required to have at least two years of work experience (in addition to their three-year nursing program) before joining the military, Fitzgerald appears to have been accepted just one year after graduating, in 1941. It is possible that Fitzgerald possessed either influential connections or a specialized set of skills that set her apart. During her father’s war, this would have been the only military role open to women – and had been for decades.
Women’s wartime involvement in post-confederation Canada began with the 1885 Northwest Resistance. Nursing was the only military position available to women – and that would remain the case for the next 50 years. During their four-week tour of duty, nurses cared for the wounded and took on traditionally “female” tasks, such as preparing food and medicine and making bandages.
Twelve women served during the South African War (1899–1902), the first time Canadian women travelled overseas as part of a military force. They were led by Georgina Fane Pope (1862–1938), a native of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. As a child, Pope read about Florence Nightingale and dreamed of following a similar path. Like their British comrades, nurses were called “nursing sisters,” while Pope was granted the title of Canada’s “senior sister” – a role that shifted throughout the following century, with Joan Fitzgerald eventually assuming the top spot of matron-in-chief (later renamed director of nursing) in the late 1960s.
Pope’s colleague Margaret MacDonald (1873–1948) assumed the role of matron-in-chief during the First World War, while Pope remained in Halifax until 1917 to train new recruits. More than 2,800 professional nursing sisters, along with more than 2,000 volunteers (Volunteer Aid Detachments, or VADs) from both Canada and Newfoundland, enlisted during the First World War. As would be the case during the Second World War when Fitzgerald enlisted, the supply of nurses willing to serve always surpassed demand.
During the First World War, women joined the civilian labour force in large numbers. This included more than 30,000 women working for wages outside of the home and thousands more working in volunteer roles (e.g., fundraising and creating and distributing supplies for soldiers in France).
“The contemporary image of the military nurse evolved out of Florence Nightingale’s legacy in Crimea in the 1850s,” historian Linda J. Quiney writes. “A romanticized mythology idealized Nightingale as the ‘angel of mercy’ who comforted the wounded on the battlefield.”[ii] The image of nursing sisters during the First World War was uncomplicated, and nursing remained for decades a wartime role that did not challenge traditional social or gender norms. Women like Joan Fitzgerald worked within this traditional milieu to carve out successful careers.
Still, 58 nursing sisters were killed during the First World War. Others witnessed scenes during their tours that were unlike anything they faced in civilian settings. Georgina Fane Pope and countless others survived the war but suffered psychological injuries for years afterwards.
Beginning in 1941, new opportunities became available to Canadian women, as the armed forces placed them in military support roles that allowed more men to be available for combat. The Canadian Women’s Army Corps was founded on July 2, 1941, and saw about 21,000 women serve. An additional 17,000 women joined the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division (founded August 13, 1941). The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service was established on July 21, 1942, and engaged an additional 7,000 women in wartime service. In all, some 50,000 women contributed to Canada’s three military branches during the war.
Many women, moreover, remained in Canada to join the civilian labour force, and millions of others took on home-front volunteer positions.
Joan Fitzgerald joined the more than 4,000 Canadian women serving as nursing sisters. As in the First World War, the supply of nurses was abundant, and, as historian Cynthia Toman argues, military authorities could afford to be selective with the recruits. The women were required to be “physically fit,” under 45, and unmarried or widowed without children. Prospective nurses were required to submit references from within their profession as well as from their church. Finally, women had to be graduates of a professional nursing program – meaning, again, recruits were almost always white.[iii]
For decades, historians have asked whether the Second World War – Canada’s most all-encompassing military effort – advanced roles for women. More recently, historians Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw have argued that the more accurate question is which women experienced social or professional advancement? They convincingly contend that membership mattered. As we can see in the case of military nursing sisters, a pre-war exclusionary system barring non-white women from nursing schools meant that the Second World War offered opportunities for white women in particular.
When participating in this debate, most historians argue that the Second World War amounted to a brief interruption of traditional roles. Following the war, women were expected to withdraw from waged labour and return to the home, including the vast majority of nursing sisters, who were discharged once the hostilities ended. After travelling to Newfoundland (at the time considered “overseas”), England, Belgium, and Italy during the war, Fitzgerald returned to Canada in September 1945 and was honourably discharged that November. Nursing sisters returning to civilian life had the option to leave the work force entirely, change career paths, attempt to find employment in a private or public health-care setting, or upgrade their education. All other women’s service branches were disbanded in 1946.
Fitzgerald took two of these paths. First, she went to work at the Halifax Tuberculosis Hospital. She then returned to school and received her diploma in public health from the University of Ottawa.
Fitzgerald returned to the military in 1948 by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force as a flying officer. She trained and served at RCAF Station Rockcliffe in Ottawa, Ontario, until 1950 – the same year that military forces in North Korea invaded South Korea across the 38th parallel. Though Canada joined the United Nations (UN) coalition under the principle of “collective security,” it was clear that the United States would lead Korean operations. Fitzgerald was sent for a seven-week flight-nurse training program at Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama in October 1950.
The use of flight nurses – as well as the establishment of training programs – emerged in 1942 just as Fitzgerald entered the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. The first Canadian women began training in the US in 1943. While the US Air Force (USAF) made use of flight nurses in the Second World War, only a few Canadian women were involved.
Military historian G. W. L. Nicholson brushes past the origins of Canadian flight nurses in his book Canada’s Nursing Sisters. As he writes, “[they] were posted to R.C.A.F hospitals in England, but they did not take part in major airlifts before the war ended.”[iv] As historian Cynthia Toman notes, it is true that only a small number of Canadian nurses participated in Second World War air evacuations. But, she adds,
Six nurses completed an air evacuation course at Bowman Field near Louisville, Kentucky, during 1943. They became part of RCAF No. 6 Casualty Air Evacuation Unit, flying casualties from the continent to base hospitals in England during August 1944 and evacuating civilian patients from Newfoundland and Labrador to larger medical facilities in emergencies. Four nurses, who joined No. 52 RCAF Mobile Field Hospital’s advance party, were probably the first Allied women to land in Normandy after D-Day in June 1944.[v]Cynthia Toman
US military authorities considered air evacuation to be too risky before the Second World War. However, tasked with evacuating soldiers from difficult terrains like Burma (now Myanmar), Alaska, and New Guinea meant re-evaluating that policy. The USAF did not initially have aircraft suited specifically for medical evacuations. Instead, they used the same airplanes to bring soldiers and supplies to a war zone and then evacuate the wounded out.
Aircrew and nurses needed to be trained quickly for these missions. The first training facility was established at Bowman Field in 1942. The USAF began recruiting American registered nurses, who were required to be between the ages of 21 and 36, 105 to 135 pounds (47 to 61 kilograms) in weight, and about five to six feet (152 to 182 cm) tall.
Fitzgerald joined the growing ranks of flight nurses in the fall of 1950. An RCAF history of the Korean War describes the course as “seven weeks of nursing classes and practical training, including familiarization flights and ditching drill.” However, we can guess what else may have been involved by looking to histories of flight-nurse training courses from the Second World War. The first was a four-week course and, as flight paramedic Beverly Ford describes, the trainees “learned to pitch tents, read maps, dig foxholes, and practiced camouflage techniques. The recruits went through a tear gas chamber and crawled on their stomachs through a 75-yard infiltration course filled with trenches and barbed wire while dynamite charges exploded around them and machine gun bullets sprayed overhead.”[vi]
The nurses were given survival training with a particular focus on being lost at sea. The skills included inflating a dinghy, obtaining fresh water from saltwater, sending distress signals, and rationing food.
The course was extended to eight weeks in November 1943, to add further training subjects. In October 1944, the program was moved to Randolph Field, in San Antonio, Texas. Between December 1942 and June 1946, 1,484 nurses graduated from these programs. Only 15 women failed to complete the course.
Though nursing was long considered the appropriate military role for women, this type of training was a far cry from what most would have defined as “the preservation of femininity.” Further, what set flight nursing apart from other military nursing jobs was the length of time during which women were left to use their own judgment in making split-second decisions.
For example, a typical medical evacuation crew consisted of one (female) flight nurse and one (male) technician. A doctor would normally have briefed the flight nurse before takeoff but did not usually accompany the flights. The two-person medical crew was responsible for about 25 patients. The flight nurse would have to use her own knowledge and skills to care for her patients and had the authority to improvise if necessary. She monitored the atmospheric pressure of the cabin in relation to her patients’ needs and could (and did) request that the pilot fly at a different altitude if necessary. This level of authority over male colleagues was not how nurses generally served in grounded military hospital settings, but the elevated position lasted only as long as a flight. In this way, women like Fitzgerald assumed what seemed like very traditional roles but, in fact, took on non-traditional responsibilities.
When the US took a leading role in the UN coalition forces aiding South Korea beginning in June 1950, nurses like Fitzgerald were brought into medical evacuation roles. Additional women’s service branches were re-formed in 1951, with an estimated 5,000 women serving in various forms during the Korean War.
Fitzgerald became Canada’s first RCAF flight nurse during the Korean War, though 40 more women (serving in pairs) eventually served in the flight nurse program from 1950 to 1955, completing 250 medical evacuations. Fitzgerald was stationed in Honolulu for the duration of her tour of duty during the winter of 1950/1951.
We can get a sense of her experiences based on what others have written about flight nursing at this time. For example, Colonel Benjamin A. Strickland, addressing a group of flight nurse graduates in 1951, described the typical duties of the role. As in the Second World War, Korean air evacuation teams consisted of a flight nurse and a technician. The nurse was notified of her next mission the afternoon prior to takeoff. She met patients at an airfield and checked on their well-being before supervising preparations for the flight and the onboarding of patients, many of whom had been treated at a field hospital just before the flight.
The flight nurse was equipped with a flight medical kit, containing what Nicholson describes as “a flying pharmacy of emergency drugs.” The nurse could bring any additional supplies of her choosing. According to Strickland, “the nurse has complete charge of all activities concerning her patients” while aboard the flight. After a mission, she might stay at the airfield or return to her home base.
After completing her three-month tour of evacuations from Korea to Honolulu in March 1951, Fitzgerald returned to her Canadian home base at Rockcliffe. But, as we might expect from a woman who touched down in more than eight countries over 10 years, she didn’t stay long. Fitzgerald became the nursing sister in charge of the medical-assistant course before moving to RCAF Station Aylmer, about 200 kilometres southwest of Toronto, to resume the same role. In 1953, she took a year-long course at the University of Toronto in nursing administration, and then moved back to Ottawa to Air Force headquarters as assistant to the matron-in-chief.
Fitzgerald’s Korean War service lasted less than a year of her more than three-decade career in the Canadian military. Yet that stint highlights one way in which some women in the 1950s were able to take on exciting – even elite – military roles.
Fitzgerald’s position as a flight nurse also hints at a few details about her character. First, she was a lifelong learner. The intensive flight nurse training was just one of the many courses she took during her career to sharpen her professional skills. Second, Fitzgerald clearly enjoyed the opportunity to travel – by the conclusion of the Korean War she had clocked 430 flight hours and was looking forward to her next trip: to London, England, to visit her brother Jack.
Fitzgerald had one other reason for visiting London in 1953. She was one of two Canadian nurses to receive a UN Service Medal for her participation in the medical airlifts and had been invited to join the 20-kilometre parade for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
Though she had an outstanding military career, Fitzgerald’s story was not typical. Canadian women during the postwar era were generally pressured to assume the traditional roles of wife, mother, and homemaker. This was an expectation or even fantasy that many women could not attain. In a 1965 interview, Fitzgerald commented that the opportunity to travel and earn a comparatively better living were certainly perks to the job, and it is possible that these – in addition to her family’s military roots – were Fitzgerald’s reasons for choosing a career over a family. Her story highlights the fact that some women certainly did (or had to) shove aside those societal pressures.
Canada in the postwar era experienced low levels of unemployment, a rise in personal wealth, and the advent of a social welfare state. However, the early decades of the Cold War are easily mistaken as a golden time. There had been an expectation during the war years that peacetime would bring the return to normalcy. But this transition involved considerable social anxiety. In the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war became the new normal.
Many Canadians remembered the social, political, and economic disruptions following the end of the First World War and believed that the traditional nuclear family could act as a safeguard against such societal ills. However, as historian Cynthia Comacchio argues, this “re-enactment” of the Victorian “cult of domesticity” was always “more aspirational than real.”[vii]
The immediate postwar years saw a dip in female participation in the labour force. The number of women working outside the home began to climb again throughout the 1950s but did not reach pre-war levels until 1961. Working for wages was not a luxury for many women; it was a necessity, particularly for low-income families, recent immigrants, and non-white women. Again, when asking how war has shaped advancements for women, Glassford and Shaw remind us: which women?
Fitzgerald’s story highlights another tension of this era: women could (albeit rarely) retain their wartime position as nursing sisters, but this would mean forgoing traditional family and gender roles (wife and mother). For other women in the military, the requirement to be single and the strict living conditions (living in a “drab” base residence, eating in the mess, no male visitors) meant that most left the services after about two years. The vast majority of women leaving the services in the 1950s did so to get married. They were immediately released.
By contrast, men in the RCAF could live on base with their families. Nursing sisters lived on base, too, but they had to be single. In fact, one of the main purposes of retaining nursing sisters during the Cold War was to offer medical services to men and families living on air bases or in isolated communities. The nurses tended to the families’ every medical need – from providing emergency care to obstetrics and public health services.
Joan Fitzgerald was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1968 and took her turn, too, as matron-in-chief of the Canadian Forces Medical Service. In 1972, she became the first Canadian woman to be promoted to the rank of colonel in peacetime, and her role was renamed “director of nursing.” That July, she also became the first woman in uniform to attend a course at the National Defence College, just one year after the first woman ever, Flora MacDonald, attended the institution. (MacDonald went on to a career in politics.)
Fitzgerald, and those who came before her, helped pave the way toward a greater acceptance of women in the Canadian military. She served in one of history’s most famous wars, in Canada’s so-called forgotten war, and in between, she worked within the traditional field of nursing in order to carve out leadership, travel, and educational opportunities. Fitzgerald retired in 1976, and before her death in September 2013, the gendered barriers to Canada’s military roles were removed.
Albert, Janice. “What’s Different About Flight Nursing?” in American Journal of Nursing (56, No. 7, 1956, 873–874).
Comacchio, Cynthia and Neil Sutherland. Ring around the Maple: Children and Childhoods in English Canada, 19th–20th Centuries [LF1] (Wilfrid [CS2] Laurier University Press, 2024: forthcoming).
Cook, Tim. The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting the Second World War, 1939–1943 (Penguin, 2014).
Ford, Beverly. “Voices of Our Past: Flight Nurse Training in World War II” in Air Medical Journal (23, No. 5, 2004, 18–23).
Gauthier, Ariane. “‘Long and Strenuous Duties in France:’ Neurasthenia and Nervous Debility among Canadian Nursing Sisters during the First World War” in Canadian Military History (31, No. 1, 2022, 1–29).
Glassford, Sarah and Amy Shaw, eds., Making the Best of It: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the Second World War (UBC Press, 2020).
Hallett, Christine E. Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Nicholson, G. W. L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters (Samuel Stevens Hakkert & Company, 1975).
Pierson, Ruth Roach. Canadian Women and the Second World War (Canadian Historical Association, 1983).
Quiney, Linda J. This Small Army of Women: Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War (UBC Press, 2017).
Shiner, Nancy Power. “‘In the Best Interest of the Service’: RCAF Flight Nurses as the ‘New Woman,’ 1945–1959” (MA thesis, Dalhousie University, 1998).
Toman, Cynthia. An Officer and a Lady: Canadian Military Nursing and the Second World War (UBC Press, 2007).
Toman, Cynthia. Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (UBC Press, 2016).
Canadian War Museum: https://www.warmuseum.ca/learn/women-in-the-canadian-military/
Canadian Encyclopedia: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/women-in-the-military
Veterans Affairs Canada: https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-veterans/timeline
Joan Fitzgerald obituary: https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/halifax-ns/joan-fitzgerald-5661696
James Fitzgerald FWW service record: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=391431
[i] Tim Cook briefly discusses the campaign against women in uniform during the Second World War in The Necessary War: Canadians Fighting the Second World War: 1939–1943 (Penguin, 2014), 6–9. See also: Ruth Roach Pierson, Canadian Women and the Second World War (Canadian Historical Association, 1983) and Cynthia Toman, An Officer and a Lady: Canadian Military Nursing and the Second World War (UBC Press, 2007).
[ii] Linda J. Quiney, This Small Army of Women: Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War (UBC Press, 2017), 5.
[iii] Toman, An Officer and a Lady, 38–39, 47. Toman’s research of a sample group of nurses indicates the majority of nursing sisters were Protestant (77.9%), while Catholics comprised the second largest group (20.8%). Jewish women were in the minority of registered nurses in the years leading up to the Second World War, due to the difficulty of filling the entrance requirements, and comprised only 0.4% of Toman’s sample. As Toman states, some schools, such as the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing, explicitly rejected Jews.
[iv] G. W. L. Nicholson, Canada’s Nursing Sisters (Samuel Stevens Hakkert & Company, 1975), 213.
[v] Toman, An Officer and a Lady, 60.
[vi] Beverley Ford, “Voices of Our Past: Flight Nurse Training in World War II,” Air Medical Journal (23, No. 5, 2004), 19.
[vii] Cynthia Comacchio and Neil Sutherland, Ring Around the Maple: Children and Childhoods in English Canada, 19th–20th Centuries (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2024 forthcoming).