The nurses of Vancouver


I was just in Vancouver at a conference attended by nearly 5,000 infectious disease clinicians (for the Day Job, of course), but do you know what I saw the most? Nurses. Architectural nurses.

Vancouver must hold the world’s record as the city with the most monuments to nurses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The one I saw the most, on my trips between my hotel and the convention centre, was this one, at the corner of Georgia and Howe. (Never mind that the street sign says Burrard.)

There are actually three of her on this building, and the trio are known as the Rhea sisters. (About which, more later.)

This isn’t the original building and these aren’t the original nurses.

What was first on this spot (in 1929) was the Vancouver Medical-Dental Building. At about the 10th storey level, in each of the three corners of the building that were visible, stood 11-foot tall terra cotta statues of a nursing sister from the First World War.

According to a report (the link is a PDF file) by Nina Rumen and Glennis Zilm of the B.C. History of Nursing Group, architects John Young McCarter and George Colvil Nairne had both served overseas in the First World War. McCarter had been seriously wounded and credited the nursing sisters with saving his life – so when he and Nairne started their firm and got the medical-dental building commission, they saw it as an excellent opportunity to pay tribute to the nurses.

Sculptor and architect Joseph Francis Watson (who worked with the McCarter Nairne firm) designed the nursing sister statues.

The Medical Dental Building was demolished in 1989, and replaced by Cathedral Place, a 23-storey office tower. At the time, there was an effort to save the original statues for the new building, but they were too heavy and difficult to remove. So replicas were made of fiberglass and mounted at about the 3rd-storey level.

The Burnaby firm Ital Décor made the castings from which the new figures were made, and took the least damaged original, patched it and keeps it in the company’s showroom. (You can see a slide show of the project here.)

According to the Rumen-Zilm report, in 1992, the Vancouver museum took a head from one of the broken statues, patched and repaired it and holds it for display. A fiberglass replica is also on display in the Cathedral Place lobby.

That ain’t all. Replicas of the same statues were installed on the University of British Columbia’s Technology Enterprises Facility III, which houses some offices of the UBC School of Nursing.

Almost forgot: the Rhea Sisters? Gono, Dia and Pyo. (medical joke)

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