Public Health Nurses: Bringing Health Home - Page Banner

Table of Contents


Letter Since the early 20th century, public health nurses have been a vital part of the government’s health_promotion activities.

Nurses visited mothers and babies at home, school children in the classroom, housebound elderly people, settlers in remote communities, and Aboriginal Canadians living on reserves.

For decades, public health nurses were the front-line workers of health education and promotion - they literally brought the message home. Their visits and the many pieces of health literature they provided to their patients - pamphlets, brochures, and booklets - helped many Ontarians learn how to live healthier lives. 

Photo: Children lined up to receive their needles at an immunization clinic in the District of Algoma, 1932

Click to see a larger image (72K)
Children lined up to receive their needles at an immunization clinic in the District of Algoma, 1932
Ministry of Health
Reference Code RG 10-30-2, 2.15.3
Archives of Ontario, I0005225

Cover of the Health Almanac, 1931

Cover of the Health Almanac, 1931
Public Health Nursing Branch  
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-9
Archives of Ontario, I0029930


Cover of The Early Years

Cover of The Early Years
Public Health Nursing Branch  
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-9
Archives of Ontario, I0029932

Cover of The Wonderful Story of Life, 1921

Cover of The Wonderful Story of Life, 1921
Public Health Nursing Branch  
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-9
Archives of Ontario, I0029842


Photo: Children wrapped in blankets waiting for a visit from the school nurse, [ca. 1905]

Click to see a larger image (312K)
Children wrapped in blankets waiting for a visit from the school nurse, [ca. 1905]
Public Health Nursing Branch.
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.14.5
Archives of Ontario, I0005189

The roots of public health nursing go back to the beginning of the 20th century. Communicable diseases kept many children away from school. So the province started placing nurses in schools to both treat sick children and promote public health education.

Legislation passed in 1907 ensured that school public health nursing was publicly funded. At the time, most public health nurses were employed by private organizations, such as the Infant Welfare Association and the Tuberculosis Association.

From there, the profession grew rapidly. The Division of Maternal and Child Hygiene and Public Health Nursing was created in 1920 within the Ontario Provincial Board of Health.

The newly created Department of Health took over responsibility for the division in 1924. And the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario began offering public health nursing courses.

The first municipal public health nurse started her work in Toronto in 1907. Tuberculosis nurse Janet Neilson visited the sick in their homes, in schools, and at work. She helped their families care for loved ones, and taught how to stay healthy themselves. Other cities quickly followed suit - Hamilton’s first school nurse was appointed in 1909, and Stratford’s in 1911.

In 1931, Edna Moore was appointed Chief Public Health Nurse for the province, and was given responsibility for the organization and direction of all provincial public health nurses.

Photo: Health clinic office staff, 1931

Health clinic office staff, 1931
Public Health Nursing Branch  
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.9.3
Archives of Ontario, I0005266

Photo: Edna Moore

Edna Moore
Reference Code: RG 10-30-1-13.24
Archives of Ontario, I0040785


Public health nurses did a lot more than care for those who had communicable diseases. Along with visiting new mothers in their homes, nurses held community-wide well-baby clinics, to teach new moms how to care for their children and prevent common childhood ailments.

Photo: Skaters dressed up and holding signs for Sarnia's Health Week, January 1925

It was a crucial role—in the 1930s, maternal death was the second-most-common cause of death in women of childbearing age, and many children never reached the age of one. Armed with a briefcase-full of pamphlets and booklets, public health nurses put the newest Ontarians, and their parents, on the road to a healthy life.

Click to see a larger image (69K)
Skaters dressed up and holding signs
for Sarnia's Health Week, January 1925
Ministry of Education
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.6.1
Archives of Ontario, I0005253

School Section No. 2, Spohn Township, Rainy River District (unorganized), June 1926

Click to see a larger image (288K)
School Section No. 2, Spohn Township, Rainy River District (unorganized), June 1926
Public health nursing historical files
Reference Code: RG 10-30-1-1.14
Archives of Ontario

Cover from The Baby, 1920

Cover from The Baby, 1920

Inside page from The Baby, 1920

Click to see a larger image (348K)
Inside page from The Baby, 1920

Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-3
Archives of Ontario, I0029928

Photo: Well baby clinic, Hamilton, [ca. 1930]

Well baby clinic, Hamilton, [ca. 1930]
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.14.5
Archives of Ontario, I0005274

Cover from The Canadian Mother and Child, a popular manual of baby care, 1940

Click to see a larger image (164K)
Cover from The Canadian Mother and Child, a popular manual of baby care, 1940

Inside page from The Canadian Mother and Child, a popular manual of baby care, 1940

Click to see a larger image (364K)
Inside page from The Canadian Mother and Child, a popular manual of baby care, 1940

Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-3
Archives of Ontario, I0029933


Visits to rural and remote areas of the province were also an important part of the public health nurse’s job. Summer nurses, working within District Health Units, made regular visits to “settler homes” in the farthest reaches of Ontario, where residents rarely saw a doctor. And in the spring and fall, nurses performed school health inspections in these areas, and gave prenatal and home nursing classes to residents.

Photo: Children being washed by a nurse at school, [ca. 1905]

Children being washed by a nurse at school, [ca. 1905]
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2
Archives of Ontario, I0005195

Card given to parents of schoolchildren in need of dental care, [ca. 1925]

Click to see a larger image (70K)
Card given to parents of schoolchildren in
need of dental care, [ca. 1925]
Public Health Nursing Branch  
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-9
Archives of Ontario, I0029859

Click to see a larger image (198K)
School report card detailing Fort William’s schoolchildren’s state of health, December 1925
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-9
Archives of Ontario, I0029860

School report card detailing Fort William’s schoolchildren’s state of health, December 1925

Public health nurses were also very involved in demonstrations at fall fairs, mobile clinics (such as tuberculosis testing and x-ray clinics), and other public health_promotion activities.

The first well-baby clinic at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1917 in Toronto, for example, saw 700 mothers and 150 infants in just 12 days of the fair. And they promoted healthy eating through such events as healthy breakfast competitions and cooking contests.

Promotional flyer for Glengarry Health Week, 1924

Promotional flyer for Glengarry Health Week, 1924
Public Health Nursing Branch  
Reference Code: RG 10-30-A-1-9
Archives of Ontario, I0029936

Photo: Children’s clinic at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), 1925

Children’s clinic at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), 1925
Peake and Whittington
Ministry of Health
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 2.4.27
Archives of Ontario, I0005218


Photo: Healthy Breakfast competition entries, Velore School Fair, 1931

Click to see a larger image (78K)
Healthy Breakfast competition entries, Velore School Fair, 1931
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.31.8
Archives of Ontario, I0005283

Photo: Nutrition exhibit using rats at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), Toronto, 1928

Click to see a larger image (62K)
Nutrition exhibit using rats at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), Toronto, 1928
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 2.5.24
Archives of Ontario, I0005221


Photo: Public Health Nursing float, Port Arthur, 1934

Click to see a larger image (76K)
Public Health Nursing float, Port Arthur, 1934
Public Health Nursing Branch
Reference Code: RG 10-30-2, 1.30.4
Archives of Ontario, I0005282

In 1944, the Division of Public Health Nursing was established within the Provincial Board of Health. The nurses were now legally responsible for all public health nursing duties in the province, including maternal and infant well-being, consultative services to public health hospitals, and in-house training for other public health nurses.

By the 1970s, public health nursing was the responsibility of the Ontario government’s Health Promotion Branch. Public health nurses were, as they had always been, at the forefront of the promotion of healthy living in Ontario.


Previous | Home | Next
Sanitation, public hygiene, and the fight against disease: 1882 to 1921
Public health nurses: bringing health home
Living longer, living healthier: health education in the curative age, 1921 to 1947
Mass marketing and social change: the postwar era | Health promotion in the modern era: 1974 and beyond
The promotion of healthy living in Ontario: timeline