She gazed out her office window and sighed. She had no idea how she was going to handle her workload today. Those she supervised had their own cases to deal with so there was no dividing her work among them. Normally when she walked into her office, she made herself a cup of tea and jumped right in. But this day, a nagging headache made her too tired to even pick up a file. She opened her desk drawer to get an aspirin. But the bottle wasn’t there. Then she remembered: She took the aspirin bottle home the day before with the intention of purchasing a new bottle. She must have forgotten.
Jane Wisdom left her office to walk to a store on Barrington Street to get some aspirin.
It was December 16, 1917 in Halifax, Canada.
Jane pulled her coat around her as a chill breeze surrounded her on her walk. The scent of the harbor wafted along that breeze: the smell of water, smoke, and iron from the ships passing through the Narrows, the strait connecting Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin. Though she was 1.8 miles (3 km) south of the Harbour a clear, cold day like today carried the scents throughout Halifax. Like most people who lived and worked near the harbor, Jane was accustomed to the sights, smells and sounds of the ships that traversed the waters.
At precisely 9:04:35 AST (Atlantic Time Zone), just before she reached the drugstore, Jane lost her footing as the ground beneath her shook. A tremendous boom! reached her ears amidst the shattering of glass storefront windows along the street. She cried out and reached for a wall to keep herself from falling.
Born March 1, 1884, Jane was influenced by the Social Gospel of her Presbyterian upbringing. The Social Gospel focused on utilizing social involvement to assist those in need, such as the impoverished and those suffering alcohol abuse. She attended McGill University in Montreal and got a taste for professional social work. Though social work was well established in England and the United States, it was still a new concept in Canada.
She attended Columbia’s New York School of Philanthropy to earn a diploma in the field of social work. She took her diploma and knowledge back to Canada.
She worked for the Montreal Charity Organization, helping families assess needs and resources. She was offered a position as secretary general for the Halifax Welfare Bureau. The first thing she did was to create a social welfare agency consisting of charitable organizations in the area. Ever hands-on, she continued working individual cases and supervising other workers.
The scene around Jane was utter chaos: people running, crying out in fear and pain: glass shards from broken windows littered the street and sidewalk. Whatever had happened had thrown everyone into a panic.
Instincts prevailed as she ran to a man who had fallen nearby. She attended to a gash in his forehead, watching as smoke began to drift over the city. A new smell entered the atmosphere: the acrid scent of smoke from a fire.
Her first concern was for the people of Halifax. Just from those she saw on Barrington Street, many of them needed medical attention. Some were on the verge of hysteria. She could only imagine how many more people needed assistance in the area. She knew the world was at war. Was it possible Halifax had been bombed?
But the blast Jane heard had not come from a bomb. Two ships had collided in the Narrows: a Norwegian vessel, the SS Imo and the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with high explosives. The impact of the collision damaged benzol barrels on the deck of the Mont-Blanc. This released vapors which ignited during the collision, setting off an explosion aboard the ship.
Structures within a half-mile radius were destroyed. Pressure waves from the blast snapped trees, bent iron rails and grounded ships. A tsunami created from the blast entirely wiped out the Mi’kmaq First nation living in the Tufts Cove. Fragments from the Mont-Blanc were spread for miles.
Two thousand people were killed. Nine thousand more were injured.
Upon learning what had happened, Jane was numbed by the realization that, had she been in her office, she would have been killed by the implosion of the glass windows beside her desk. But she knew there was no time to lose. She was the only trained professional social worker in Nova Scotia.
Gathering more than sixty local charity workers, they created a food distribution system, depots for the distribution of clothing and blankets and applications for food and coal. Jane worked tirelessly for the first twenty-four hours after the disaster, organizing workers for distribution of supplies and to go street-by-street making lists of survivors and their whereabouts.
Those first twenty-four hours following the worst disaster on Canadian soil were critical in the recovery of the people of Halifax. Jane’s efforts brought attention to the need for relief efforts – not only in time of disaster – but also relief to those in need in general.
It was Jane’s belief that a social work system should help create jobs, assist with education and medical needs, and help with recreation for the indigent. A broad scope of social work such as this had not been achieved, but her vision formed the foundation upon which modern social work is based.
After the Halifax explosion, Jane worked as a Supervisor for the Rehabilitation Department of the Halifax Relief Commission, organizing Community Houses for survivors of the explosion.
In the years after the Halifax Explosion, Jane worked as the director of the Halifax Relief Commission’s Social Service Department. She acted as liaison between the local charity sector and the more official governmental side of charity work, enabling them to benefit from each other.
She worked on the Nova Scotia Provincial Commission focusing primarily on women’s issues: Mother’s Allowances and wages and working conditions of women in factories.
She eventually returned to McGill University where she was an instructor part time of the social case work in the Department of Social Science and School of Social Work. She then worked for the Women’s Directory of Montreal, specializing in the care of single parent families.
Ending up in Glace Bay, Jane studied the social conditions in the coal mining town. She remained in Glace Bay as the town’s first social worker, developing their program of social services. She retired in 1952 to Sutherlands River, Pictou County.
On December 16, 1917, Jane Wisdom was in the right place at the right time. For want of an aspirin.
The historical portrayals are fictionalized, powered by pure imagination.
Pen is a published author with 30+ titles to her credit. A biography of Jane Wisdom is included in Legacies and Legends, Women Who Dared to Make History, Volume 1. Please also visit Nero’s Fiddle for more books by Pen.