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History Hunter: New book tells old story of nursing in the Yukon

Author Amy Wilson was a registered nurse in the Yukon from 1949 to 1951
Multiple versions of this memoir by Yukon nurse Amy Wilson have been printed since it was first released in 1965. (Submitted)

“The Yukon is a wonderful country for men and dogs, but it kills women and horses.” At least that was what Amy Wilson was told.

A book is being re-issued at the MacBride Museum on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. Published by Caitlin Press, it is titled When Days are Long: A Nurse in the North, by Wilson, who was a registered nurse in the Yukon from 1949 to 1951. In its original release in 1965, the book was titled No Man Stands Alone, and the American release came out under the title A Nurse in the Yukon.

Regardless of which version you might be reading, the story remains the same. Amy Wilson, who had been a practitioner in various isolated communities in northern Alberta, was hired to fill the job of public health nurse along the Alaska Highway and in the Yukon.

Wilson was born in rural Alberta in 1908 in a family that had come from Missouri, enticed by the promise of free land. Her mother died when she was just three years old, leaving her father to care for seven children. Despite being poor in a material sense, Wilson stated that their father instilled in his children “a feeling of responsibility toward one another and to our community…. We never felt unloved or neglected. We all worked together, laughed together …and sang together.”

After leaving school, Wilson enrolled in a nurse-in-training program at Calgary General Hospital. Upon graduation, she worked in a hospital in an unnamed Alberta mining town, and followed that with a stint as a public health nurse in the Peace River district and around Lesser Slave Lake. In the fall of 1949, she was hired by the Department of National Health and Welfare, as public health nurse on the Alaska Highway, caring for 3,000 indigenous people in an area covering 50 million hectares.

When she began her new job, she jumped into the deep end of the pool. Her first assignment was to deal with an outbreak of diphtheria in the area of Hudson Hope, B.C. Packing a sleeping bag, snowshoes, food, medical supplies and her accordion, she set out to care for the sick and dying far from the nearest road. She followed that with a vaccination campaign in the communities along the Alaska Highway, to stop the spread of the deadly disease.

Over the next three years, she continued to travel widely in the service and care of the sick. Her job took her to practically every community in the Yukon – Minto, Mayo, Dawson, Carmacks, Snag, Klukshu, Teslin, and Atlin, and many other places along the newly constructed Alaska Highway. She traveled by every means available to her: snowshoes and dog team, horse, automobile, boat and airplane. She treated outbreaks of influenza and measles, delivered babies and tested for tuberculosis. The government even recognized her work by awarding her a special medal for distinguished service.

In 1950, northern roads were crude; the automobiles prone to flat tires and mechanical breakdown. Aircraft weren’t as reliable as they are today, and communications were far less sophisticated. Despite all these drawbacks, she provided care for the sick and ailing to the best of her ability, delivered with compassion and understanding.

In her later years, Wilson became progressively more concerned by the indifference of the government for the people she had been hired to care for, and eventually she resigned so that she could speak publicly about the frustrations of dealing with a bureaucracy seemingly more interested in statistics, records and figures on paper.

In the foreword, written by Paula Culling, also a registered nurse with experience working in the north, Culling observed the same indifference in the north 40 years after Wilson. “The remoteness, unrelenting winter conditions and the long hours have not changed for northern nurses,” she writes.

Wilson presents a humanistic view of post-war nursing in the Yukon. Her storytelling ability is outstanding, and if other readers respond the same way that I did, they will find this to be a charming and endearing account that is a joy to read from the first page to the last.

In one chapter, she describes a trip she took from Whitehorse to Mayo in preparation for a mobile chest X-ray clinic. In Mayo, she found accommodation in the local hotel. The hotel register was kept in the bar which was a busy, noisy place. She had to carry water to her room to wash herself in the morning. The rooms had no towels, and the door, which could not be locked, had to be held shut by jamming a pair of scissors into the door casing. The sheets had not been changed in a long time (she complained, and was provided with clean sheets that she had to change herself).

During the night, there was a scuffle outside her weakly barricaded door, and she didn’t get to sleep until 5:00 a.m., then was up at 7:00 to start another day. Her description of this, and many other experiences create a fascinating picture of frontier life in the north.

An entire chapter is devoted to the mourning and burial of a respected but unnamed tribal leader. Other chapters describe her trips to outlying communities over temporary winter roads under deplorable conditions, and the illness that awaited her upon arrival.

Wilson describes the physical hardships and logistical challenges she faced to fulfill her mandate. She shares her memories of events and the people she met and cared for with charm and grace, delivered with modesty and humour. She presents the First Nation people that she served, who were on the cusp of great social and cultural change, in a poignant yet unvarnished fashion. You can tell that she loved her work and the people she tended to.

This book is a great read and I heartily recommend it. While doing some background reading, I referred to the American edition and was surprised to find a section containing 30 photographs provided by Aileen Bond, another nurse who worked with Wilson (the reprint has only six photos). It would have been a bonus had the publisher been able to include those images in the reprint.

At the end of the American edition I also found a postscript not included in either the original Canadian publication or the reprint. It was written by the same Aileen Bond and revealed much about Wilson that she was too modest to say about herself. According to Bond, Wilson loved music, and spent a lot of her own money to purchase instruments (which she inevitably left behind) wherever she was stationed. She loved to play bridge and was “fantastically lucky.” She wasn’t a very good cook, though, and was teased by others for her lack of culinary skill. But that just makes her even more human.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at