“An Ode to A Nurse in Training”: School Life for a Student Psychiatric Nurse

Student nurses on Essondale grounds

Student nurses on Essondale grounds [ca. 1939]
Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection C5-S09-F15-C5.3818

In our previous online exhibit, An Emerging Profession: Psychiatric Nursing at Essondale, 1913–1973 we recounted the storied history of the School of Psychiatric Nursing at the Provincial Mental Hospital, Essondale. But what was it like to be a nurse in training? Through photographs, ephemera, and documents, this exhibit explores the delicate balance of the student psychiatric nurses’ demanding school life and their social diversions and recreation.

From Probies to Blue Bands

When students first started at the School of Psychiatric Nursing at Essondale, they were not initially considered “student nurses” until they made it through their probationary period. These probationers, or “probies” underwent an orientation, preliminary classes on psychiatric nursing, and several weeks of controlled ward experiences. During this term, the hospital superintendent checked each student’s “general fitness for the nursing profession.” Only those young women who were seen as good nursing candidates were officially accepted by the school. The others were sent home.

Will any of us ever forget our confused, timid probie days…I don’t imagine that any of us proved very useful during the first month. I know that my days were spent in abject fear of doctors, supervisors, and any nurse who was even a few days senior to me. Fear of dismissal was not unlike the sword of Damocles ever hanging over our heads, when such items as an untidy uniform or an unpolished shoe were brought to our attention by one of the supervisors. Our first broken medicine glass was a minor tragedy in our lives.” – Miss R. deLautour, Annual 1946, p.27

From as early as 1939, the School of Psychiatric Nursing instituted a program originally called “Big Sister Act.” The purpose of the program was to aid probies in establishing themselves at the school and to help them adjust themselves to hospital life and routine. Third-year students acted as big sisters to probies and acquainted them with the different buildings, the various home rules, and school life.  To officially mark the end of the probationary term, probies were presented with pleated white nurses’ caps at a small capping ceremony.

Junior and senior student nurses in front of Nurses’ Home Opens in new window

Junior and senior student nurses in front of Nurses’ Home No. 1, [ca. 1939]
Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection C5-S09-F05-C5.4008

As student nurses progressed through the program, their uniforms continued to show their experience and status. Junior and intermediate student nurses wore blue dresses with short white sleeves, aprons, and of course, their caps. When they began their senior year, students were expected to wear blue long-sleeved dresses, and received a light blue band for their cap to symbolize their increased responsibility both in the school and on duty. Senior student nurses were thus called “Blue Bands” by doctors and ward staff. Upon graduation, student nurses would be presented with two black bands to wear on their caps to officially mark them as psychiatric nurses.

After 1965 a new uniform was introduced and probies began their studies wearing nursing caps. However, to still differentiate probies from their seniors, a green band would be attached to the left and then right sides of their cap when they achieved intermediate and junior student status, respectively.

Poem by M. McMurphy in Nursing Annual

Poem by M. McMurphy in Nursing Annual, 1939
Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection C5-S08-SS2-F02

Graduate black bands and senior blue bands

Graduate black bands and senior blue bands, [ca. 1948]
Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection C5-S09-F10

Cram, Cram, Cram

During the three-year psychiatric nursing program, students received a total of 300 lecture hours in psychiatry, psychology, psychiatric nursing, professional ethics, nursing arts, anatomy, nutrition, social work, pharmacology, and ward administration. Students often complained about the busy schedule in their yearly graduation annuals through doodles and poems.

Poem by Lucille Hume in Nursing Annual

Poem by Lucille Hume in Nursing Annual, 1940
Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection C5-S08-SS2-F03

On top of this busy lecture schedule, student nurses worked rotating day and night shifts on wards all around Riverview Hospital. Student nurses would work shifts at East Lawn, the Home for the Aged, and North Lawn, and they would also have placements at the Woodlands School.

Student nurses assisted with occupational therapy and recreation therapy, as well as insulin shock therapy, hydrotherapy, and electroconvulsive therapy treatments.

Dr. Ultan P. Byrne and two student nurses

Dr. Ultan P. Byrne and two student nurses, [ca. 1939]
Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection  C5-S08-SS2-F02

“Hep-cats and Alligators”

Despite their demanding school schedules, students managed to keep up quite a busy social life in between their studies and their different shifts on the hospital wards.

“Of course, three hundred and sixty-five days in the Nurses’ Homes are social evenings. Invariably some group is indulging in tea and toast, plus other good foods (depending on how near pay day is).” – Annual 1941, p. 45

Student nurses frequented the Ye Olde Tucke Shoppe, just downhill from the Nurses’ Homes, for the occasional snack and socialization outside of their dormitories.

The year presented a social calendar packed full of teas, socials, and themed banquets and parties, held most often in Nurses’ Home No. 1. Themes ranged from holiday festivities like Halloween, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and Valentine’s Day dances, to “Kids theme” parties, “Cootie” parties, pajama parties, jitney dances, and even once a “mock wedding.” Nurses prepared skits and radio shows, and performed music for their own enjoyment.

After the opening of Pennington Hall, events were held in the multipurpose recreation facility. Sock hops, pool tournaments, gym dances, karaoke, bowling tournaments, and movie nights offered student nurses a fun way to unwind.

Pennington Hall exterior, 1992 Opens in new window

Pennington Hall exterior, 1992 (Photo by Anna Tremere)
Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection C5-S01-SS5-F2-C5.3871

Student nurses were also a sporty bunch! They enjoyed swimming at the Boys Industrial School Gymnasium on hospital grounds or in the Coquitlam River. Their yearly annuals also boasted many different organized sports, maintaining a badminton club, softball team, and a popular tennis club. 

“In the morning we see the night staff tripping jauntily up to the courts, dressed in shorts and summer attire, for a game of tennis in the sunshine before getting their forty winks of sleep. During noon hour some of the doctors and stenographers manage to get in a game or two. But evening is the real time for tennis enthusiasts. Nurses, attendants and various others fill up the courts till it’s almost dark.” – 1939 Annual, p. 43

Boys' Industrial School, swimming pool, Port Coquitlam Opens in new window

Boys' Industrial School, swimming pool, Port Coquitlam, [195-]
BC Archives NA-39640

Gymnasium; Boys' Industrial School, Port Coquitlam

Gymnasium; Boys' Industrial School, Port Coquitlam, 1929
BC Archives A-09457


The days leading up to the student nurses’ graduation ceremony were marked with a variety of social events. Every year, on top of their “official” ceremony, graduates attended two to three other informal graduation parties thrown by alumni and the student body. In 1941 alone, the graduates were thrown breakfasts, teas, and three dances: a grand dance at the Hotel Georgia in Vancouver; an alumni dance at the Commodore Ballroom; and a dance at the Cave Cabaret.

Commodore Orchestra

Commodore Orchestra, 1933
City of Vancouver Archives CVA 99-4293

Large group watching unidentified performers at the Cave Supper Club

Large group watching unidentified performers at the Cave Supper Club, [between 1939 and 1951]
Library and Archives Canada R3133-1280-X-F

After all their hard work, the nursing students were celebrated at an official commencement ceremony. Originally, it involved a procession from the Nurses’ Home up to the training school at East Lawn.

“Nothing could have been quite so beautiful as the one hundred white uniforms, two-by-two and evenly spaced, progressing along in the dusk with the rising moon and the newly-gowned green trees as a background.” – 1938 Annual, p.17

Attendees enjoyed orchestral and vocal selections amidst addresses given by the Provincial Superintendent, Medical Superintendent, and the Superintendent of Nurses. All graduates were awarded flower arrangements of roses and irises, black bands for their nursing cap, and “Conferring Badges.” By the 1950s, the badges began to be called “Conferring Pins” or “Graduation Pins”, which featured a Maltese cross bearing the coat of arms of the Provincial Mental Hospital.

Provincial Mental Hospital Graduation Pins Opens in new window

Provincial Mental Hospital Graduation Pins
City of Coquitlam Riverview Hospital Artifact Collection

The nurse's school pin was a symbol of professional status and a way to officially welcome graduates into the profession. The pinning tradition can be traced back to the 12th century when those who cared for the injured were given Maltese crosses to wear on the battlefields of the Crusades.

The nursing pin evolved over time and became associated with Florence Nightingale, who was awarded the Red Cross of St. George for her service to injured and dying Crimean War soldiers. She extended this same honour to her graduate nurses by presenting each of them with a medal of excellence. By the early 20th century, it became standard for nursing schools in Canada to award a pin to all nursing graduates.

First graduation class Opens in new window

First graduation class, 1932.  

Back row: A. McKenzie, J. Couch, G. Anderson, M. Hall, Dr. Gee, Dr. Campbell, Miss Josephine Kilburn, Dr. Davidson, Dr. Ryan, Dr. Byrne, Edna Colvin, Mary MacDonald, B. Catherall

Front Row: S. McCue, Anne Keith, L. Bullock, J. Harby, M. Stokes, Superintendent C.A. Hicks, Dr. Crease, Instructress Miss M. Marlatt, M. Roth, M. Sharpe, M. Vincent, Minna McDonald, M. Wilson. 

Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection C5-S08-SS3-F3-C5.022

Student nurses formed lifetime bonds with each other through their time in the program and living together in residence. The care and camaraderie between the students can be felt through the photographs and documents in the Riverview Hospital Historical Society collection. To discover more personal nursing records, take a look at the newly digitized photographs available through Quest, the City of Coquitlam Archives’ online search portal.