In 1890s Winnipeg, if you had nine brothers and sisters, likely only five, possibly six of you would survive to adulthood. Communicable diseases encouraged by lack of hygiene caused frequent child mortality. Children routinely died of measles and typhoid. In 1904, one in seven infants died in their first year; by 1912, it was one in five.
To combat this abnormally high infant mortality rate, the Winnipeg Public Health Department was created in 1900. Efforts focused on educating mothers, many of them non-English speaking immigrants, about proper hygiene and handling of milk. In 1910 a Safe Milk Dispensary began distributing free pasteurized milk to poor new mothers. Only moderately successful, the infant mortality rate stayed high.
The Health Department developed a more aggressive education campaign distributing pamphlets in several languages on topics such as sanitation, household management and food safety. After 1912, public health institutions like the Margaret Scott Nursing Mission began conducting home visitations and instruction. Margaret Scott, founder of the Nursing Mission, read about the Little Nurses League and recognized its usefulness in Winnipeg.
The Little Nurses League, interchangeably called the Little Mothers Movement, was an international movement in the early 1900s that began in New York City and spread across the U.S., Canada and Britain. Through the Little Nurses League, nurses went into schools to teach young girls preventative measures and proper baby care.
Adopted as a permanent component of schoolwork, the Little Nurses League gave girls ten years and older specific instruction on modern aspects of childcare. At home, school age girls often cared for their younger siblings so the League employed a teaching technique that proved to be quick and effective: they used dolls as babies.
The girls became change agents, taking their new knowledge home and using it when tending their brothers and sisters. They educated their mothers, overcoming the barriers of literacy and language the nurses experienced when visiting homes. The program also advanced the socialization of a young generation of new Canadians while successfully reducing the infant mortality rate.
In 1912, the first schools to participate in the Little Nurses League were Aberdeen and Strathcona. Winnipeg School Division #1 developed a School Health Department designed to offer a range of medical services to students including physical examinations, vision testing, dental, First Aid and mental capability testing. By 1937, the Division had 14 school nurses who made 5,000 visits to schools and 15,000 to homes. The Little Nurses League that year trained 270 girls in 15 classes.
The Division’s School Health Department was integrated into the City of Winnipeg Health Department in 1941. Services to schools expanded with more staff (30 nurses by 1942), X-ray examinations and sex education.
Not only was the Little Nurses League a boon to immigrant families, it demonstrated the need for effective health care that involved the whole community equally. The League was also successful in educating people about their roles and responsibilities to their families, communities and new country.
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