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Canada’s nursing profession celebrates the life of one of its most decorated nurses

The late Dr. Helen K. Mussallem (1915-2012) achieved many firsts in nursing, paved the way for others

Ottawa, Friday, November 16, 2012 — The Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) is fondly remembering and celebrating the life of Dr. Helen K. Mussallem, a remarkable nurse leader who became one of the most compelling and influential figures in our country’s nursing history. Dr. Mussallem, who served as CNA’s executive director from 1963 to 1981, passed away on November 9 in Ottawa at age 97.

“Dr. Mussallem led the organization through a period of tremendous growth,” said CNA president Barb Mildon. “She believed that if CNA was to be recognized as a national organization that supported nurses’ efforts to maximize their contributions to the health of Canadians, CNA had to seize every opportunity to participate in national committees and commissions looking into health and health care.”

Born and raised in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Dr. Mussallem graduated from the Vancouver General Hospital School of Nursing and, after studies in administration at the University of Washington, returned to Vancouver General (VGH) for six years as an operating room supervisor. Throughout the Second World War she served overseas as a nursing sister and thereafter used her veteran’s points to obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing from McGill University. She subsequently earned a master’s degree in education from Teachers College at Columbia University and went on to become the first Canadian to obtain master’s and PhD degrees in nursing.

Dr. Mussallem was a true champion of nursing education and research — believing that both were imperative if nurses were to be accepted as equals in the decision-making circles of the health-care system. Her doctoral dissertation and landmark reports in the 1960s were highly influential in the transfer of nursing education from the hospital environment to post-secondary academic settings. In addition, she founded the Canadian Nurses Foundation (CNF) to help nurses pursue higher education, and, in the 50 years since, CNF has provided education and research scholarships to some 1,500 nurses.

Dr. Mussallem is considered the country’s most decorated nurse. During her lifetime, she received seven honorary doctorates along with many other accolades, including the nation’s highest honour, the Companion to the Order of Canada. Dr. Mussallem was the first Canadian to receive the McManus Medal from Teachers College. The International Red Cross also bestowed upon her its most prestigious award, the Florence Nightingale Medal.

This September, CNA was honoured when Dr. Mussallem returned to CNA House to uncover the time capsule she buried 47 years ago as a way to preserve CNA’s and nursing’s history for future nurses. A new time capsule, which she also helped assemble, contains a hand-written note from her about the importance of living life to the fullest.

“I join with all nurses in Canada in honouring this remarkable nurse leader and acknowledging her lasting legacy to our profession and our country. Her life and achievements continue to inspire current and future generations of nurses,” Mildon said.

On behalf of CNA, Mildon will pay tribute to Dr. Mussallem at her memorial service today in Ottawa.


The Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) is the national professional voice of registered nurses in Canada. A federation of 11 provincial and territorial nursing associations and colleges representing 146,788 registered nurses, CNA advances the practice and profession of nursing to improve health outcomes and strengthen Canada’s publicly funded not-for-profit health system.


For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Kate Headley, External Communications Coordinator
Canadian Nurses Association
Telephone: 613-237-2159, ext. 561
Cell: 613-697-7507
E-mail: kheadley@cna-aiic.ca