Page taken from the service file of Nursing Sister Helen Kendall of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, First World War. This document details her official record of service, including dates, locations, and specifics of postings.

Helen Kendall

Helen Kendall, Nursing Sister

When we read the story of Helen Kendall and reflect on the collection of photos, audio tapes and other archival information from the Beaton Institute featured in this virtual exhibit, we gain some insight into what life was like in Nova Scotia at the turn of the twentieth century. A large percentage of the female population, for example, did not complete high school, and very few were afforded the luxury of graduating and continuing their post-secondary training in a chosen field. Life was difficult at that time, and young women were often forced to work to help support their family. Employment for women was often in factories or as domestic help for wealthy families. Sometimes they took in sewing or laundry to contribute to the household income. Once married, their work was often in their home and today we would call them “stay-at-home moms.”

Those who were fortunate to continue their education following high school usually went into one of two professions: teaching and nursing. These women were mostly from more affluent families and often were the daughters of professional fathers in fields such as medicine, engineering, and education. Helen Kendall was one of those young women, and upon completion of high school, she went on to study nursing at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.

As you work through the activities in this learning and teaching module, you will come to know what life was like for Helen, and to understand the important role that women played in the war effort. With an abundance of information now on the internet, you will be able to explore life during the First World War and then speculate on how the experiences of Helen and other women like her helped to change the lives of women throughout the twentieth century. You will be asked to hypothesize and reflect as you explore the documents that are referenced.


“When thinking about the First World War, we often imagine the thousands of men who served in the military. One of the most important parts of the army was its medical service, made up of doctors (all male) but also nurses (called nursing sisters).”

Women and the War Effort

  • Imagine living in a small village, town, or city in Nova Scotia around 1914. The First World War had just begun and men from across Canada were enlisting in the armed forces to travel to Europe to fight for their country. These men, young and old alike, had to not only leave behind their families but also their employment that was urgently needed to support their families. Prior to this time, careers for women were limited because of the demands of family life. Now with the men away at war women had to take on new roles in various industries in order to support their families and contribute to the war effort. 
  • Research the kinds of work that women did prior to the war, and how the absence of men changed the way women viewed their roles within the family structure. 
  • An important role for women to support the war effort from home was to create ‘care packages’ that were assembled and sent to the soldiers overseas. What do you think went into these care packages? How do you think they were distributed to the soldiers? What would be the challenges of getting these care packages to the soldiers? What do you think these packages meant to those who received them overseas?
  • If mothers had to go to work, speculate about the kinds of supports available to them as working mothers. Who do you think would have looked after the children while they worked? Imagine you are a working mother and you are writing a letter to your husband overseas. Describe how life has changed in his absence and the challenges of life as a working mother with five children.

Introducing Helen Kendall

  • Often books contain illustrations or drawings to reinforce ideas and bring a story to life. Visual storytelling, also known as graphic narrative, involves the use of images to engage emotions and do the work of narration through drawings, similar to comics. In the Helen Kendall exhibit, a series of nine illustrations (scenes) depict a graphic narrative of her life through visual storytelling. 
  • Locate the graphic narrative for Helen Kendall. Independently review these illustrations and try to determine the story that is depicted. Look for clues in each illustration to reinforce your ideas and justify your interpretation of Helen’s life story.
  • Working with a classmate, together share your interpretations of the story. Were they identical? If not, can you point out the clues you used to justify your interpretation?
  • Join up with another pair to make a group of four students. Repeat the process of sharing your interpretations of the story and have each student justify his/her interpretation by identifying specific clues in the illustrations.
  • Independently, write a short biography of Helen Kendall based on the graphic narrative that tells the story of her life. Try to include as much descriptive language as possible so the emotions depicted in the visual story are strong.

Helen Kendall, Nursing Sister

  • Helen Kendall, the daughter of a medical doctor, had a life of privilege growing up in Sydney, Nova Scotia at the turn of the twentieth century. After high school, Helen travelled to Montreal to study nursing with a specialization in anaesthesiology at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
  • At the time, several hospitals in Nova Scotia had already established nursing schools at major hospitals across the province. Why do you think she did not attend one of these schools? Provide evidence to justify your hypothesis. 
  • Today anaesthetists are trained medical doctors who have specialized in this field after completing their medical (MD) training. Research how the field of anesthesiology has changed over the twentieth century and why nursing sisters were able to work as anaesthetists during the war. 
  • To get to Europe and the areas affected by the war, military personnel had to travel by ship. How long did a crossing take in 1914 when the war started? From where did these ships sail? Speculate on the many dangers a ship would have encountered while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Listen to the audio recording of a dramatization of Helen’s account of the crossing.
  • Listen to the audio recording of the interview with Helen around 1980. Based on what you now know of the role that women played in the war effort, consider three additional questions that you would like to ask Helen if you had had the opportunity to meet her.
  • Study Helen Kendall’s Service File that is included in this exhibit. Based on what you now know of Helen’s life and her experiences as a nursing sister, is there anything that surprised you in this document? If you had the opportunity to interview Helen, what additional information would you like to know based on what you read in this file? Based on these entries, write a brief account of Helen’s experiences from May 1 to July 31, 1918.
  • Explore the photograph gallery that clearly demonstrates Helen’s commitment to service as a nursing sister. Even though she lived a life of privilege, she also understood the importance of service to her community and country. This was a value instilled from her extended family. Research Henry Ernest Kendall, Helen’s father, to discover the service the Kendall family had to medicine; to their community locally, provincially, and federally; and to Canada during both world wars. Prepare a Powerpoint presentation that describes how this life of privilege influenced Helen in her career.
  • One of Helen’s closest friends from Sydney was Katharine McLennan who also served as a nursing aid during the First World War (see a photo of the two of them in 1973 in the photograph gallery). A virtual exhibit of Katharine’s life has also been created and you may find it helpful to visit that site [] to gain more insight into the lives of young women who grew up in affluent families in Sydney, and who, after receiving training, went on to serve during the First World War.

Life after the First World War

  • Following the war, Helen returned to practice nursing in Montreal. During her career she and other colleagues, including Cape Breton natives Garfield MacKay and Katharine McLennan had opportunities to travel to parts of the world where medical personnel were needed. For example, Garfield MacKay travelled with Helen and other medical professionals to Romania in 1920. 
  • Research what was happening in Romania at that time and why this call to action was necessary. It is interesting to note that MacKay also worked with Marie Curie in France. Curie was a physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research in the field of medicine. Do a web search and explore her story and the contributions she made to medical research. Speculate on the role that MacKay would have played while working with her. 
  • Following the First World War, life began to change for women in Canada. Because of their work experience during the war years, they were no longer content to be “stay-at-home moms” but now wanted or needed to continue to contribute to family life in other ways. Sometimes this was necessary, especially if their husbands returned physically or mentally wounded (shell shocked). Even worse, many men had died during or shortly after the war. Today troops are still sent overseas to participate in war efforts, and many return home with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD). What do we do today to help soldiers with PTSD?
  • Do you have a relative who served during the First World War? Explore your family history, and if you have relatives who may have heard war stories about their ancestors, learn about what life was like when a soldier or nursing sister returned from the war. 


  • Immediately following the First World War, women’s groups formed to fight for rights as individuals, including the right to vote, the right to serve in the military, and the right to have equal work for equal value . While many of these rights were only achieved in the last half of the twentieth century, the women who fought for them were trailblazers.

Research and do a presentation on local women who played roles in achieving rights for women over the twentieth century. Provide examples of current federal government legislation that supports equality amongst all citizens regardless of gender, race, and sexual orientation.

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