Convocation ‘20: Suzanna Wagner

Learning from the Past, Illuminating the Present

Donna McKinnon - 09 June 2020

When Suzanna Wagner began her MA studies on the history of Canada’s military nurses during the First World War, she had no idea that on March 11, 2020 — when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic — that her research would be, in her words, rendered unexpectedly relevant. March 11 was also the date of her thesis defense, scheduled months earlier.

During the second year of her degree, Suzanna began a substantial side project on the 1918 Influenza epidemic at the University of Alberta and in Edmonton more generally. A blog post she had written in 2018 on the anniversary of the pandemic at the U of A began to circulate again in March of this year when we, as a community, began to look for precedents from the past to help navigate the present under COVID-19. An Edmonton Journal article followed.

Living under COVID-19 has given Suzanna a deeper empathy for the people she researches, raising new questions about the psychological toll of pandemics. She admits that there is “something chilling” about living through history, particularly when it’s the type of health history she has spent years researching. 

Ultimately, she says it highlights the importance of record keeping and access to history, and hopes that it will inspire renewed interest in under-discussed health stories from the past, and present.

What drew you to the area of your study?

An insatiable desire to know more! I was fascinated by the history of First World War Canadian military nursing sisters, but much of the information I wanted hadn’t been published yet. I took this as the perfect opportunity to do the research myself. The more I read, the more I came to realise that there was more significance to the history of these military nurses than an interesting story. Their experiences said a lot about their world, and possibly about our world too. By looking at the history of First World War healthcare through their eyes, different parts of the military healthcare experience show up as important than if you start your study with medical advancements or doctors’ work. The nursing sisters I studied served in the Mediterranean, an area where Canadian combat troops did not serve. Thus, investigating the wartime experiences of these Canadian nurses reveals not only little-known aspects of nursing history, but also little-known aspects of Canadian history. A whole new place appears on the landscape if one follows the women, and not just the fighting men, who went off to war.

My study of the 1918 flu was startling and awe-inspiring as I read not only about the tragedy and loss, but also about the tremendous scale on which the people of Edmonton, most commonly the women, offered care to others. The apparent banality of laundry work, cleaning, cooking, nursing, and child care came to a sudden, if brief, end when the scale of the flu epidemic highlighted how desperately people needed this every-day work to be done. For a short time, everyday domestic matters, generally performed without public recognition, became prominent tasks. This gendered care-work went from being invisible, to written about everyday in the newspapers. It is a startling opportunity to see within the historical record direct discussion of the many vital everyday roles and work usually hidden from the public eye. It is also a situation which raises questions for today. Nurses, often the underappreciated healthcare worker, along with the allied healthcare professions are being recognised and appreciated loudly during the pandemic. Will we continue to publicly celebrate their caring work after the pandemic?

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

Rather than one particular thing I learned, the most satisfying part of grad school was being challenged to think about history in new abstract and complex ways. I discovered new intellectual tools which allowed me to ask better questions and to approach analysis from multiple angles. Having the opportunity to think deeply and discuss so many topics with fabulous thinkers was undoubtedly the most remarkable and exciting part of grad school.

 Did you face any significant challenges, and if so, how did you deal with it?

Absolutely! I anticipated encountering a variety of challenges. One challenge, however, I did not expect, was having to come to terms with a kind of grief caused by the realisation that I couldn't read everything I wanted to. There simply was not enough time. Rather than focusing on what I was not able to do, I've learned to see those works, which are as-of-yet-unread, as exciting new paths to explore later. Accepting that having to set aside that exciting looking article, fascinating book, or beckoningly mysterious primary source for now, didn't mean I couldn’t work with it on the next project, gave me the mental freedom to work on the best aspects of my current projects.  There is a certain humourous irony to this particular challenge: as a child, I had a deep fear that I would run out of books to read. 

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

When we set the date for my defence, there was no way of knowing what was coming. As the date neared, my supervisor, my committee, and I watched the news with apprehension as cases of Covid-19 spread across Canada.

The date of my defence, March 11, 2020, turned out to be the day the WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. And only two days later, the university cancelled all classes. I took a box of my precious books home from my office and worked on submitting my thesis to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR), always with that niggling concern that if something went wrong, people would not be in their offices to help me.

As the university went through the stages of moving classes to an online format, closing libraries, buildings, and putting social distancing measures in place, I watched as a largely forgotten blog post I had written about the 1918 flu at the U of A was widely circulated again. I was called for media interviews. I had an eerie sense of déja-vu reading current headlines: I felt as though I had already read them all - just in relation to the flu pandemic of 1918.

There is something chilling about living through history, all the more so when it’s the type of health history I have spent so much time researching. My research generally focused on the human experience of the 1918 flu, and the personal experiences of the nursing sisters of the First World War, rather than the progression of scientific theories and medical practice. Now I’m personally experiencing a pandemic.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

Only use one word processor. Seriously - don’t try to transfer files between Pages and Word. Explore bibliographic software at the beginning of the degree. You can’t read everything.

And most importantly: take a full day of rest every single week.

What is next for you?

Well, there’s unquestionably lots to read! Publishing is my next aspiration. I am looking forward to taking some of those unexplored paths - topics from my thesis work that I want to delve into deeper, and aspects of health history that I didn’t explore at all in my thesis. I had two conference papers to present on topics adjacent to my thesis, but alas, they were postponed because of COVID. Perhaps next year? Also, a new bookshelf. I’ve run out of room!

Read Suzanna's convocation profile in the University of Alberta’s Folio

The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.