Jessie Forshaw, pioneer Canadian public health nurse

Jessie Forshaw Byron, R.N. (1892-1958). Photo published in Sullivan Review, Dushore, Pa., January 30, 1958. Courtesy Sullivan County Historical Society Museum, Laporte PA.

In the summer of 1919, provincial health officer Dr. Henry Esson Young wrote into his annual report an ode to nurse Jessie Forshaw, even as he announced something new under the sun for Canada:

The Department is undertaking the establishment of health centres throughout the Province. The first was established in the municipality of Saanich … under the charge of Miss Forshaw, Victorian Order Nurse, a young lady of exceptional ability, possessing great organizing powers, enthusiastic in her work, and possessing the valuable faculty of being able to impress and enthuse others. Miss Forshaw took charge of the work in Saanich, and it has grown until there are now three nurses engaged; a health-centre house has been opened as a temporary quarters; a by-law is being submitted to the people to raise $25,000 to build a permanent home.

Dr. Young indicated the outward trajectory of Miss Forshaw’s career:

The practical work that Miss Forshaw and her colleagues have carried out has been a wonderful help to the Department by impressing upon the other districts the benefits to be derived from following this plan. Other points on the Island are asking now for nurses, and, at your instance, [sic] Miss Forshaw was sent to visit the Women’s Institutes through the eastern part of the Province. It is very gratifying indeed to learn from those with whom she visited of the impression she made.

Twenty-third Report of the Provincial Board of Health … for the year ending June 30th, 1919. British Columbia. Legislative Assembly. Sessional papers [microform], 1872-1920. British Columbia. Archives. Library Call No. D-24. Reel 32 [of 33], p. B7.

The subject of this biographic sketch was a native of Vancouver, Canada, born October 1, 1892 to Isabella ____ (1) and Joseph ____. Her baptismal name was Jessie Mary Fraser. Five months and nine days later, Isabella Fraser Malcolm of New Brunswick married Charles Ernest Forshaw, an English immigrant cabinet maker(2). One can only guess at the circumstances of her birth or who Joseph was.

1. Name “unknown” in the BC Archives online index of marriage records. Date confirmed on 1901 census of the Charles Forshaw family, Vancouver.  ¶ 2. Same names on their 1893 marriage certificate (indexed at BC Archives) and 1894 birth record of Jessie’s brother, or half brother, Frank. Sadly, he did not live through his eighth year. Another son died of the Spanish Flu at age eighteen on November 26, 1918. A daughter born in 1902 lived just three years. Jessie had a (half) sister, and still the family grew by four, according to the 1921 census.

Jessie grew up in Vancouver and graduated R.N. from the St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1915. In May 1916 she travelled to Juneau, Alaska to work at St. Ann’s Hospital.*

* At the time her nearest relative was her mother Bella Forshaw at 1421 Richardson St, Victoria.

As related in Spanish Flu and the Rise of Public Health Nursing, Forshaw took on work with the Victorian Order of Nurses for Saanich in or before September 1918. Her work during the epidemic is detailed in the article Attack and Counterattack. Her role in establishing Canada’s first public health centre is outlined in the first article mentioned above.

Following postgraduate studies in public health nursing at the University of Washington, Seattle(1), Forshaw moved on to become, in rapid succession,  the British Columbia government Public Health and Nursing Service’s provincial organizer(2); an instructor at the V.O.N. public health training school in “St. John” — meaning, I assume, Saint John, New Brunswick(3); and acting inspector of the V.O.N “in the absence of Miss Cole, who is in England.”(4)

1. Daily Colonist, December 30, 1919, p. 8. ¶ 2. ibid. ¶ 3. Canadian Nurse, XVII:8, August 1921, p 515. ¶ 4. ibid.

In February 1922 The Public Health Journal reported on Miss Forshaw’s success “on loan” to MacDonald College, McGill University’s agricultural extension on Montreal Island, for six weeks to “lecture on public health nursing in rural communities,” to which the men farmers (“Farmers’ Institutes”) came, along with their wives (“Women’s Institutes”):

The College supplied a demonstrator. Miss Crane, of the Domestic Science Department. This experiment proved a very interesting one, Miss Forshaw often speaking four hours a day, two in the afternoon and two in the evening. Not only the members of the Women’s Institutes but the Farmers’ Institutes availed themselves of the opportunity to hear her lectures. Miss Forshaw is well fitted to speak on public health problems as applied to rural districts as she organized the Health Centre at Saanich, B.C., and for one year was provincial organizer for that province.

The Public Health Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, February, 1922, p 76

Forshaw seems to have inspired her audience to accept the public health movement as a long-term proposition:

Miss Bessie M. Philip, Director of [the Macdonald College] School of Household Science, in writing to Miss Forshaw said: “When I think of how greatly such work is needed, especially here in our province, I realize how much cause we have to be grateful, not only to the Order for lending you to us, but to you yourself for your interest and hard work. Immediate returns may seem to be few, but the seed once sown, we shall probably, never know how far-reaching its effects, nor the final extent of the result.”

In May 1922 came news of other assignments, seemingly undertaken simultaneously:

Miss Jessie Forshaw, R. N. Inspector, has returned from a four months’ inspection and survey of the Maritime Provinces and the Quebec peninsula, in response to the great demand for community nursing in Eastern Canada. While in the Maritime Miss Forshaw addressed many of the local associations and other welfare organizations in the interests of Public Health. Miss Forshaw leaves April 18th to organize some new districts in Northern Ontario.

The Public Health Journal, Vol. 13, No. 5, May 1922, p. 220

In November 1923, Forshaw appeared at the U.S. border at Rouse’s Point, New York, applying for admission(1). She moved to New York City “for postgraduate work in mental hygiene,” according to her obituary(2).

1. via ¶ 2. “Mrs. Jessie Byron,” Sullivan Review, Dushore, Pa., January 30, 1958, p. 4. From Sullivan County Historical Society Museum, Laporte, PA.

She was enumerated in the City of Brooklyn by the State of New York in 1925, and in the local news of November 20, 1925, we find a brief as follows:

Start Nurses’ Forum
… among members of the Central Registry of this borough, Jessie Forshaw was elected chairman of a temporary committee formed to complete organization.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 20, 1925, p 4.

In the 1930 federal census, Jessie Forshaw was living in Queens, NY; occupation “agent ^employment^ industry: nurses” (“employment” was added with a carat).


She also worked for the Visiting Nurse service in New York.

“Mrs. Jessie Byron,” op. cit.

In 1934 she married Richard M. Byron in New York City(1). He was several years her junior; his employer in 1942 was the Board of Education, New York, NY(2).

 1. New York, New York, Marriage Indexes 1866-1937 via ¶ 2. U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards via

In 1948 Jessie and Richard moved to Overton Township, Bradford County, Pennsylvania. They settled in New Albany, PA, where they lived out their lives.

She took part in many New Albany undertakings, including the fundraising campaign which enabled that community to build a factory and retain the Herbert Rynveld’s Son Corp. after its disastrous fire.

She served as president of the Auxiliary of the New Albany Volunteer Fire Co.

For her activity in the New Albany Chamber of Commerce, Mrs. Byron was voted a life member.

She was a member of the St. Francis Xavier Church of Overton.

“Mrs. Jessie Byron,” op. cit. (Paragraphing added.)

Jessie Byron died on January 28, 1958 in New Albany. She is buried in the St Francis Xavier church cemetery. Her husband Richard survived her by fourteen years; they did not have children. Jessie was survived by a brother, George Wilson Forshaw, a Linotype operator at the Vancouver Sun, and four sisters, Robina Victoria Jane (Mrs. John Dinsmore), Ella Iola (Mrs. Omar McInnis), Norma Isabelle (Mrs. Frank Payne) and Bernice May (Mrs. Ernest Holbrook), all of Vancouver.

PS: I see a resemblance between the visage of the person second from left in the image below (detail of the group photo taken at the B.C. Hospital Association meeting in Victoria in July, 1919, see here) and the portrait published with Jessie Forshaw Byron’s obituary (see top of this article), which is the only photo of the public health nursing pioneer that has come to light.

Published March 28, 2018; last revision December 30.