May 11, 2020, By: Melanie Pitman
Unfortunately, nurses often go unthanked and unappreciated, their names quickly forgotten by those whose lives they touch. One of Canada’s unsung nursing heroes, Sara Corning, affected thousands of lives at home and abroad, yet many Canadians have never heard her name. It’s time we knew her story.
Early life and nursing school
Sara Corning was born in 1872 to Delilah Churchill and Samuel Corning of Chegoggin, a community near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. As the third of 13 children, Sara was used to sharing, helping around the house, and tending to her younger siblings.
At the age of 24, Sara embarked on her journey of nursing and humanitarian relief. There was no nursing school in Yarmouth at that time, so Sara had to go elsewhere for her education. Because the ocean was the easiest way to travel from Yarmouth, she chose to sail to the United States and attend the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Training School for Nurses, located in Hanover, New Hampshire. She was awarded her registered nursing certificate in 1909.
Sara studied for three years at the Hitchcock School. It didn’t offer much in the way of formal instruction, nor did it have any kind of standardized curriculum. Instead, its focus was on-the-job training and first-hand experience. Instruction was given at patients’ bedsides as well as lectures and readings by the doctors and nurses hired by the school.
As part of her training, Sara spent time working at the Boston Floating Hospital for Children (which was connected to Boston’s Tufts Medical Center), and received a certificate of service from them in 1908. She received her Red Cross certificate in 1918, at the age of 46.
The Halifax explosion
In December 1917, two ships collided in Halifax’s harbour, and a horrifying explosion decimated vast areas of the city. Relief flooded in from all parts of North America, including Sara and many of her Boston colleagues. These people helped set up a temporary hospital at the YMCA on Barrington Street. There were originally 166 beds, but a maternity hospital was soon added. Sara also served at the Camp Hill hospital site, where 1200 casualties had been admitted in the days after the explosion.
Early years with the NER
In 1919, Sara joined the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief , a New York City–based humanitarian organization that the US Congress renamed the Near East Relief (NER). This group focused on the Armenian genocide—the systematic expulsion and murder of millions of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1914 to 1923. The NER oversaw roughly $117 million of assistance, including the foundation of clinics, hospitals, and orphanages, and the care of approximately 132 000 Armenian orphans.
Sara travelled on the USS Leviathan in February 1919 and headed to Le Havre, France, and then by train to Marseille and hospital ship to Constantinople. This was where the NER’s base operations were conducted.
Sara’s first posting was to manage an orphanage near Yerevan in Armenia. Upon her arrival, she found hundreds of thousands of refugees in the area, all starving and many suffering from scabies, typhoid fever, or cholera. Thousands of people, including many children, died from these illnesses. Sara stayed and cared for the children at this orphanage for a year, at the same time tending to mothers and babies at a nearby refugee camp, seeing to their nutritional needs and overall health.
For the next two years, Sara worked at Anatolia College in north-central Anatolia. The front steps of the college became a popular place for desperate parents to leave their babies—parents who were either fleeing or forced to join death marches, where they were deprived of food and water. At one point, during an Ottoman raid, Sara hid a teacher named Mirhan Hovagimian in one of the college’s buildings, thereby saving his life. He eventually escaped to safety in Greece.
Working in Smyrna
By the time Sara moved on to work in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) in 1922, the city was overrun with both Greek and Armenian refugees. The Ottoman military burned villages as they chased the Greek army westward, and hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge in Smyrna. The American Red Cross and NER sent people, including Sara and a team of medical professionals, to help evacuate any Americans living in the city—but only Americans. Smyrna was set ablaze; Greeks and other refugees were raped, beaten, and murdered. Sara and her team conducted triage at various hospitals around the city and helped as best they could.
The fires were extensive, and Sara found herself working under the very worst of conditions. She and her teammates strove to save several hundred children who were trapped inside two schools in the Armenian district. Despite strict instructions to save only Americans, Sara and her NER colleagues managed to save more than 5000 children of many different nationalities. The team was there for only seven days.
Sara wrote in her alumni newsletter: “The place was crowded with many sick refugees and we opened a clinic to take care of them … , but it was soon closed by the soldiers.” She also wrote about looting, the flames that engulfed the city, and how some refugees jumped into the harbour to their death rather than face the horrific fate that awaited them in the city.
Orphans and orphanages
As the atrocities against the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek peoples continued, Greece welcomed refugees, including hundreds of thousands of small children. The NER opened many homes for children, and Sara herself managed the orphanage in Oropos until 1924. She then moved to a girls’ school at Anatolia College in Marsovan, Turkey.
While Sara was in Oropos, she personally adopted five young girls, and later helped to support a male student at Thessalonica College. Although the children she adopted didn’t always live with her, she did ensure their well-being and provided for their education. She once wrote to a friend, “The hope for the future of all nations is education,” so it is not a surprise that she made sure her adopted girls were well educated.
In 1930, Sara retired at the age of 58 and returned home to Chegoggin, taking up residence in the same house she grew up in. She passed her remaining years caring for the children of family members and those in the community. The young ones called her Aunt Sara. She was known to offer candies from a special bowl, allowed children to play in her yard, and recorded the height of her most frequent young visitors on her doorframe.
At the age of 97, Sara Corning died while in the Yarmouth Memorial Hospital.
Recognition and accolades
In June 1923, Sara was summoned to Athens, where she was recognized by King George II of Greece and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, who presented her with the Silver Cross Medal of the Knights of our Order of the Saviour, essentially giving her the honorary title of “knight.” The king and queen later visited Sara at her orphanage in Oropos.
The Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education was established in 2012 with an aim to educate children and students on human rights. The Centre’s mission is based in the idea that “human rights education is effective in ensuring that Canadian students become engaged in civic life, advocate for their own rights and those of others, and remain aware of the consequences of discrimination” (Sara Corning Centre, 2020).
On September 14, 2019, the town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia unveiled a statue in honour of Sara’s life and work. Dignitaries came from across the globe to witness the unveiling of Garen Bedrossian’s sculpture: a bronze statue of Sara Corning, with one small child in her arms and another at her feet. It sits in a newly commissioned park where a local church once stood. The town has also named a street after her, Sara Corning Way.
Sara Corning’s grave can be found in a small cemetery in Chegoggin. Her headstone reads, “She lived to serve others.” This is a fitting epitaph, because Sara was the epitome of a committed nurse. She was extraordinarily humble—part of the reason, perhaps, that many Canadians, even nurses, have never heard of her.
Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education. (2020). Our mission.
Melanie Pitman is a lifelong book nerd. Currently living in Halifax, NS, she writes and edits mainly about sports (go, Raptors!), parenting, and homemaking. Life on the East Coast provides her with plentiful opportunities and inspiration. In her spare time, Melanie enjoys reading, cooking, and re-watching Disney movies.