posted on Feb. 14: Henrietta Alderson’s death signifies the end of an era in nursing at McMaster


[img_inline align=”right” src=”” caption=”Henrietta Alderson”]Henrietta Alderson was one of three founding faculty members who developed the (integrated) undergraduate nursing program at McMaster. Alderson died Dec. 25 in Hamilton at age 85. Family, friends, colleagues and former students will attend a memorial service being held today, Feb. 14, at McMaster Divinity College from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to commemorate her work, leadership and life. Nursing professor Susan French along with professors Joan Royle and Alba DiCenso will be sharing their memories of Alderson. Here are excerpts from French's eulogy:

Three women — Alma Reid as director, Florence Greenaway and Henrietta Alderson — were the core faculty members who developed the (integrated) undergraduate nursing program at McMaster.

Henrietta or Henri as she became known to colleagues, friends and students was the driving force in ensuring that the students had a solid science base for the practice of nursing. These three women were creative and innovative in developing the five-year BScN Program (later shortened to four years) with an emphasis on the integration of the sciences and nursing and small group learning.

Joan Royle,'58, remembers: “I recall meeting at Henri's apartment with my classmates from the class of '58 for a focus group to discuss our memories of our days as students at McMaster. Henri's science labs and our experiences with small group learning and discussions of group dynamics and group process, were the highlights of our collective memories. This was from the late 1950s – more than 20 years before the creation of the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Fair but demanding

Henri was a fair but demanding teacher who expected her students to be lifelong learners. Constantly keeping up to date in the fields of human physiology, anatomy and pathology, she was a mentor and role model for the students. In those years, the 1950s and 1960s, there was no medical school with its anatomy department and teaching laboratories. Henri's lab was located in Hamilton Hall where the academic counselling services (Centre for Student Develoment) now reside.

Henri always challenged students to achieve their best – never accepting anything less. Henri was proud of the fact that she knew each student by name and maintained that tradition when the class sizes increased substantially. Even in her retirement she recalled the names of most alumni members and they did not forget her. Each Christmas and throughout each year she received cards and notes from former students.

A love of learning

The McMaster community was small when she joined the Faculty and she forged strong linkages with colleagues throughout the university. She maintained and expanded those linkages as the university grew. She was a supporter of self-directed, small-group learning well before it became fashionable. She developed learning resources and made them readily available to the students.

Her deep-seated love of learning led Henri to be one of the most ardent supporters and users of the library. A favourite activity was to walk to the main library on campus and indulge in her love of history. She always lived close enough to walk and was none too pleased when the Health Sciences Centre was constructed and forced her to alter her route. Her retirement never interfered with that love affair with the library and its holdings. It provided her with an opportunity to read and study at her leisure and for the first 10 years post retirement one could expect to encounter Henri in the vicinity of the library with her load of books. After suffering a stroke and moving to a retirement home in Dundas, she cultivated the Dundas library and became an ardent supporter of that community facility.

History, nursing and McMaster were very much a part of Henri's life and it was no surprise when she offered to write a much-needed history of the first 25 years of the School of Nursing, 1946-71. She was passionate about nursing and wanted others to know how the early beginnings laid the foundation for the School of Nursing becoming a leader in academic nursing in Canada.

Persistent, passionate

Henri made several contributions to the nursing and health sciences archives – most noticeable are the dolls in the foyer of the school – dressed in the uniforms worn by nursing students at McMaster during the last 50 years. Henri instigated the search for the photographs of the early graduating classes and it is through her diligent efforts that the school has a photographic display of each graduate from the early 1940s to the present. Without her persistence and passionate interest in preserving the past, the record of the early years would have been lost.

Henri was a strong supporter of the School of Nursing and was always a team player even when she did not like some of the changes. Henri was one of those Hamiltonians who grieved over the loss of the RBG sunken gardens, and the Health Sciences Centre and all its advanced facilities never really compensated for that loss. The move from the Faculty of Sciences into the newly established Faculty of Health Sciences was one of her least favourite changes, but once in the building, Henri ensured that the students made use of the new and expanded laboratory and other facilities.

Henri was a great teacher who respected the students and in her quiet but capable manner urged them to set and achieve higher and higher standards. She was always raising the bar. The respect Henri had for students and their capabilities was reciprocated by the students. She became such a part of their learning that Henri and McMaster were synonymous.

Upon her retirement, the alumni established the Henrietta Alderson Lecture Series – and until illness prevented her from attending Henri was present to hear an expert in science deliver the lecture.
Retirement never interfered with Henri's commitment to the school and McMaster. Until health no longer permitted her to attend, Henri was a constant presence at all alumni and other events.

Fascinated with faraway places, retirement allowed her to travel. Henri researched places she was to visit and enjoyed learning first- hand about other countries. Ireland always remained her favourite spot. When she was no longer able to travel she read any books she could find on Ireland.

Henri's love of history was reflected in her interest in antiques and she joyfully collected antiques in her travels. Prior to retirement, she started to expand her interest in art and learned to paint. Initially, her paintings resembled the precise anatomical sketches she used in her science courses. However, the lines gradually became more flowing and the paintings more expressive. She loved the countryside around Hamilton and many of her watercolours depict the area at various seasons.

Travelling to Ireland and elsewhere, including touring by horseback in the Canadian Rockies, with other artists was one of her most treasured past times. Each trip resulted in a number of watercolours. She was her own most severe critic. She would never allow a painting to be exhibited in her home or elsewhere that did not meet her exacting standards.

Henri looked after the details while seeing the broad picture. It was not surprising for those of us who knew her to learn that every detail of her funeral was planned in advance. Who but Henri would have arranged for her grave site to be beside the church in which the service was held so that relatives and friends had only a short distance to walk in accompanying her to that resting site?
We are fortunate in that not only do we have our memories, but the “25 years a growing,” and the lectureship series, the archival materials and the many watercolours she painted and distributed so freely to bring Henri to mind.

End of an era

Henri, Alma and Florence — the trio that was responsible for the development of the School of Nursing in its first 25 years.
Florence died in 1990, Alma in 1999 and Henri in 2000. All three of these women lived independent lives until well into their 80s and enjoyed life and friendships throughout their lives. Three fantastic women who touched so many lives and made a difference.

The death of Henri is the end of an era. Note we said “death,” Henri was always precise and direct; death is the term she would use.