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​Emily Patterson: The Heroic Life of a Milltown Nurse

By Lisa Anne Smith

Review By Jane Errington

June 6, 2018

BC Studies no. 199 Autumn 2018  | p. 186-7

In Emily Patterson: The Heroic Life of a Milltown Nurse, Lisa Smith transports the reader to late nineteenth century Pacific Northwest and evocatively offers a history of an extraordinary woman living through extraordinary times.

Born in Bath Maine in 1836, Emily Patterson (née Branscombe) was a “typical” young girl. She helped her mother with a myriad of household tasks, attended the local grammar school, and by the time she was in her early twenties, enjoyed all the social life that Bath had to offer. From the beginning, however, Emily was fascinated by and had a particular aptitude for nursing. And her marriage to ship captain John Peabody Patterson in 1858 provided her with the opportunity to practise her growing medical knowledge.  After a year aboard ship on a trading expedition to China, the young couple went west to seek their fortunes in the newly opening lumber industry. Initially, they moved from one remote lumber camp to another and Emily’s services as a midwife and nurse/doctor were in considerable demand. As Smith evocatively chronicles, the camps were “cultural crossroads” (92) where Canadians, Americans, Britons, Europeans, Hawaiians, and First Nations peoples all worked and played and sometimes fought. Often Emily’s closest women neighbours lived in nearby First Nation’s communities and she took pains to learn at least some of the local languages “to improve her chances for social exchange” (47). She also sought opportunities to add traditional Native remedies to the medicine trunk that went with her every time she moved.   In 1874, the family finally settled in Moodyville, on Burrard Inlet. Emily, now the mother of six, continued to tend to an array of patients and even the arrival of the first doctor to the community did not displace her services. It was only as the region slowly took on the trappings of the modern world that she began to scale back her work, and by the time the family moved to nearby Vancouver, in 1896, Emily was virtually retired. Yet, even at her death in 1909, she was recognized as “ever the ministering angel” (252).

Emily Patterson: The Heroic Life of a Milltown Nurse reads like a novel. It opens with an imaginary scene between a ten year old Emily in conversation with and helping a local midwife who was attending Emily’s mother. The account ends with a conversation between an elderly Emily and her daughter, Alice, as they marvelled at the tall buildings that now marked the Vancouver skyline. This is not a scholarly work and there is no question that Lisa Smith took “creative licence” (280) in retelling Emily’s story. At the same time, the research is exhaustive. Building on extensive oral histories of the region, and particularly the memories of Emily’s daughter Alice and recollections gathered by her granddaughter, Smith tracked down genealogies and combed through local newspapers to recreate Emily’s world from the ground up. Those interested in the early history of the region and particularly of Vancouver will be fascinated by Smith’s account—with its wonderful, fully formed characters of both local “note worthies” and ordinary folk. Readers will also gain a real appreciation of how this remarkable woman—Emily Patterson—negotiated and challenged gender, class and racial boundaries in a very matter of fact way and left an indelible mark on the burgeoning settler communities of the Pacific Northwest.

Emily Patterson: The Heroic Life of a Milltown Nurse
Lisa Anne Smith
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2017. 312 pp. $21.95 cloth.