Columns and Letters

Then and Now: Losses and gains – Calvina MacDonald

-by Jim St. Clair

Down the road

The statistics are certainly worrisome – so many individuals and families going down the road and across the Canso Causeway to live and work in other places. 

The goodbyes, however, have been heard throughout the land for many years, not just since the lure of Alberta became so enticing.

In the late 1860s and the 1870s, a number of departures took place as the developing economy of Ontario required new workers and Inverness County opportunities became less. 

Among those who pulled up their stakes or closed the doors of the houses behind them were Archibald and Jane (MacDonald) MacDonald who lived in his family’s home at the foot of Salt Mountain, Whycocomagh.

With three young children and another on the way, Archie left his occupation of school teacher and part-time farmer for work in a brick manufacturing factory. He and Jane both left widowed mothers behind, his at Salt Mountain and hers in Stewartdale. But siblings remained to care for the parents and for the farms. Archie’s brother was a merchant with a store on the waterfront near the present wharf. 

The departure of this family was a loss to the community. The young people proved to be energetic and attracted into productive occupations in their new home. 

Calvina MacDonald

Conceived before her parents left Inverness County, Calvina was born in Clinton, Ontario, in April of 1874. Perhaps she was stimulated by stories of her family’s cousin, Julia (MacNiven) Noble, a noted midwife of the 1820s and 1830s, and whose name is recalled by the name of the ferry at Little Narrows, Caolis Silis (or the Straits of Julia), or perhaps aware of the activities of two of her mother’s sisters whose assistance was often summoned to the bedsides of women bringing forth new life in country farmhouses in those days before hospitals and maternity wings. 

Or possibly, she came to be aware of how many babies and their mothers died in childbirth in the area of Ontario where the family lived. The origin of her dedication to the care of mothers and babies is not clear. 

Whatever the stimulus, after three years of teaching in a small rural school in Chatham, Ontario, she took her savings to Boston, Massachusetts where she enrolled in the nursing program at the City Hospital where she specialized in maternity care. Her careful attention to detail and her ability to direct others came to the attention of Dr. Edward Cushing, a member of the Cushing family of doctors of Boston and Cleveland, Ohio.

Encouraged by Dr. Cushing, Calvina applied for a position at the Western Reserve Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. There she remained for over thirty years of nursing and supervision of a maternity wing.

Quite disturbed by the lack of clearliness and by inattention paid to mothers and babies, she believed that the poor professionalism accounted for the high rate of illness and death of children and mothers in many hospitals, including the one in Cleveland. 

Through her oversight of every detail and her meticulous attention to the improvement of facilities and careful attention to every aspect of caring for women and babies, the maternity wing of the Western Reserve, newly named Cleveland General Hospital, came to be outstanding in North America in its excellence. She was noted for making the rounds of every patient once a day, even after she came to be the assistant director. 

Her name was given to a new maternity wing in recognition of her work. Currently known as University MacDonald Women’s Hospital, the institution now has a strong teaching and research component. Her portrait is to be seen in the lobby of the entrance. It shows a woman of small stature but very determined visage – an accurate portrayal indeed, so say her relatives still living in Inverness County and other parts of Canada and in the United States. Her fondness for her parents’ birthplaces and her relatives is recalled to this day, seventy-five years after her death. 

Her grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of her family are buried in the Stewartdale Cemetery, a location she visited several times in her later life. 

Contribution of Calvina MacDonald

The rapid change in many maternity institutions in both the United States and Canada has been partly identified as Calvina MacDonald’s influence. People came from many parts of both countries to learn from her and from the hospital. 

While the departure of the MacDonald family from Inverness County was a loss, a greater gain was realized as Calvina came to be a leader in the changes to be seen in the 1920s, l930s and 1940s in the care of women and babies in many hospitals.

Thus, while we may often lament the departure of individuals and families for other locations, we may also note that one of the major contributions of Inverness County, and indeed of Cape Breton, has been its capable people. Many, like Calvina MacDonald, realized their potential in other places and influenced life in many places, including their old homes.


And so it is as well that this week we can recall the great contribution of Alistair MacLeod, whose heart was indeed in Inverness County, to the wider world of readers and writers and students. We can mourn his passing as we rejoice in the gifts which he has given to so many through his writing and his teaching and his lecturing. 

Oran Dan - The Inverness Oran -

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