Halifax Explosion & health care: All hands on deck

Due to the magnitude of the Halifax Explosion and the numbers of injured and dead, it was necessary for all health professionals – and students – to respond. In fact, Dalhousie University cancelled all classes until January to allow students to lend a hand.1

Florence Murray was a fourth-year medical student at the time. She describes reporting for duty at the YMCA Emergency Hospital:

“Has your class had instruction in anesthesia?” asked the commanding
officer. “Yes, sir,” I replied. There was no opportunity to say that all in the
class except myself had had this training. In the army one doesn’t explain.
One answers questions. “Go to the operating room and give anesthetics,”
ordered the officer….I gave that anesthetic and others following it all day.
The next morning the commanding officer appointed me official anesthetist
for the hospital.”2

Claire Katherine Otto had just started training at the VG School of Nursing the night of the explosion. “It was an earth shaking event and will never forget seeing so many injured at once. The sounds of suffering stayed with me a long time until I had more nursing knowledge to deal with it.” All of the nursing students were evacuated from the residence until it had been confirmed there was no risk of further explosions. The next day’s classes were cancelled and “We were assigned small chores throughout the hospital,” said Otto.3

Residents also looked to local druggists for help. “Within minutes, people came to the drug stores looking for help,” said Mary MacCara, pharmacists, historian and author of Dispensing Aid: Druggists and the Halifax Explosion. “The drug stores were in a terrible state. There was broken plaster, broken glass all over the floors, and amidst this rubble, the druggists gave first aid to the injured.”4

While help from outside of Nova Scotia was greatly appreciated in the early days, the numbers of doctors and nurses spontaneously arriving to help in the days following the immediate disaster response posed a challenge in and of itself. The Dec. 11 issue of The Daily Echo included the following plea from the relief committee:

“The administrative situation in Halifax, as can well be imagined, is extremely strained, and the outpouring of assistance, personal and material, from outside points is temporarily adding to the difficulty of the situation. The executive of the relief committee requests, therefore, that doctors and nurses and other voluntary helpers, do not come to Halifax without at first being arranged by telephone or correspondence, that their benevolent services can immediately and serviceably be used.”


1 Murray, Jock. The Medical Response to the Halifax Explosion, public talk at Halifax Central Library, Nov. 29, 2017.

2 Murray, Florence J. At the Foot of Dragon Hill, preface. New York: 1975.

3 VG Nursing Archives, Bethune Building, VG site, QEII, with special thanks to Gloria Stephens.

4 Pharmacists and the Halifax Explosion (2017 video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOGddan_6gk