by Kerstin Auer —
It is said that nursing is a calling rather than a profession, but in the early 20th century it was one of the few professions available to women. One of the women practising nursing in Merritt was Olla Standish, the first head matron of the Nicola Valley General Hospital.
Standish was born in Ontario and grew up in Alberta, initially studying to become a teacher. After a change of heart, she moved to Vancouver to complete her nursing education at Vancouver General Hospital. She excelled in her studies, and was offered the position of Head Operating Nurse at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops in 1911, straight out of nursing school.
“A couple of years later, when the [Nicola Valley] hospital here opened up they were looking for a matron and they offered her the position, so she took it,” said Cameron Bridge, manager of the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives (NVMA).
Her medical peers were not the only ones impressed by her; it is said that when George B. Armstrong laid eyes on her while she was riding a horse, he was equally smitten by her and impressed with her horsemanship. After a short period of courtship the couple was married in LaCombe, Alberta in January 1913. They had two children, George Standish Armstrong and Kathleen Armstrong, and while Standish stayed involved in the medical community by becoming the President of the Merritt Red Cross Society during World War I, her new role would be that of a stay-at-home mother.
“Especially back in those days, you became a nurse until you get married. It was a profession for women that you do until you got married and had kids. Then you were expected to be a stay-at-home mother,” added Bridge.
Olla Standish’s married bliss came to an abrupt end in 1929, when she returned home from a visit to Vancouver to find out that her husband had died after their house caught on fire. Suddenly, she had to add entrepreneur to her professional accomplishments, as she took over leadership of the Armstrong General Store after her husband’s death. Standish led the store successfully through the Great Depression and was known as a great leader.
“She was a fantastic business woman, and she was highly regarded,” noted Bridge.
Tragedy struck the Armstrong family again on June 11, 1948, when Olla Standish died from being electrocuted after a reading lamp fell into the tub as she was taking a bath. Her son George found her after she had not come to work that day. Hundreds of Merrittonians paid their respects at her funeral with the entire Trinity Church and adjoining school room packed, according to the NVMA.
While nursing has changed over time to become a career for all people as opposed to only a placeholder until marriage and parenthood, one things seems to still be the same. Nurses often work in the background and don’t get the recognition they deserve, and are not nearly as visible as other professions in the medical field. This was the case for Olla Standish as well; she was an accomplished professional and still remained somewhat invisible. No photos exist of her, museum records only show that she was described as a very tall and regal woman.
“We don’t have any photos of her. Her son, George S. Armstrong, donated a lot of photos, but none of his mother,” noted Bridge.