Only one nurse worked in the Lethbridge isolation hospital in the early 1900s, where coal fires were used for heat, old RCMP cots were used for beds, and the washing was done only by hand: her name was Mildred Dobbs.
Mildred Dobbs was born in Gloucestershire, England in 1878. She was educated as a nurse in London and initially worked for the Queen’s Nurses – England’s version of Canada’s Victorian Order of Nurses.
When her brother moved to Western Canada in 1910, she joined him. Upon arrival, she accepted a job in the isolation hospital in Lethbridge; her wage was $70 a month and she worked 24 hours a day.
Miss Dobbs worked at the isolation hospital for the next 39 years.
Back then, Lethbridge was a small coal mining community. Since vaccinations were not readily accessible until the 1950s, residents were vulnerable to communicable diseases such as whooping cough, smallpox and measles.
The town established an isolation hospital, but Mildred complained of poor ventilation and lobbied the government for a proper facility.
Finally, in the 1920s when Mildred Dobbs convinced the town’s council to relocate the isolation hospital to a former children’s shelter, where there were amenities such as a coal-fired furnace, a gas stove, and newer beds.
During the cold winter months, Mildred continuously ran hot water to fill the bathtub and all the pots in order to gather enough water for the day and to prevent the pipes from freezing. She would make up to 30 trips per day carrying hot water for bandages and compresses to treat her patients to further prevent the spread of different diseases.
She would change gowns each time she treated a patient with a different disease. At a certain point, Mildred had as many as 21 patients suffering from polio, scarlet fever and measles. She sanitized linens and fabrics by boiling and soaking them in chemicals. Though she rarely had a support worker, she managed to keep up with the tasks of treating patients, housekeeping, cooking, and washing.
Mildred Dobbs had little time for anything other than caring for patients. Mildred was a very religious person, yet she did not allow herself to attend church. She also went as long as two years without seeing her brother; she was afraid of bringing infection to him and his family. If she left the hospital, there would have been no one else treating the patients.
She would run errands if additional supplies were needed, but these trips were few and far between because she had to go through a decontamination process before travelling to the city’s centre.
Mildred once said, “The only real drawback to the hospital was that we couldn't have visitors - only through the window.”
It was common for family members to bring candies and other treats to the isolation hospital; they would leave them by the fence, but they would run away before Mildred got a chance to collect them. When asked if she was scared to be alone, she laughed and said she had nothing to worry about; the isolation hospital scared everyone away.
In later interviews, she recalled always having a positive relationship with her patients who were known to praise her good-natured personality.
After 39 years at the isolation hospital, she never got sick. “I didn’t have time to be sick,” she said. Of all the years of treating hundreds of patients with various communicable diseases, the only illness she had was a sore throat.
In the spring of 1950, Mildred Dobbs retired at the age of 74. She passed away in 1974, and her humanitarian work is commemorated with a plaque at Elizabeth McKillop Park in Lethbridge, and a street is named in her honour: Mildred Dobbs Blvd. To learn more about Mildred Dobbs, you can find information at the Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge.