Lisa Anne Smith is an education docent at the Museum of Vancouver and a curator for the Old Hastings Mill Store Museum (the oldest building in Vancouver).

Utilizing extensive archival research and eye-witness accounts, Smith brings to life Vancouver's disastrous fire of 1886 in her book Vancouver is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886 (Ronsdale 2014). SEE REVIEW BELOW. The catastrophe razed the fledgling city of Vancouver to the ground. In addition to revealing memories such as flames sweeping up wooden sidewalks 'faster than a man could run' Smith examines the ramifications of the fire, changes that ensued and reaches conclusions that are both positive as well as negative.

Smith, along with Barbara Rogers, also co-authored Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story (Ronsdale Press 2012). This is the first biography of Seraphim "Joe"; Fortes who became a Vancouver legend by teaching three generations of Vancouver children how to swim. Arriving in Vancouver in 1885, Joe was hired by the City as lifeguard, swimming instructor and special constable of English Bay beach in 1900. He would later be voted "Citizen of the Century."; On February 7, 1922, thousands of mourners lined Vancouver's streets to bid farewell to "our friend Joe."; One of Vancouver's libraries is named after him; some of the proceeds from this biography are being donated to the Lifesaving Society/Société du Sauvetage, Canada's national organization for lifeguarding and water safety expertise.

Smith has also published St. Roch: A Book for Kids (2001) about the RCMP ship at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. 978-155380-320-1

The Heroic Life of a Milltown Nurse by Lisa Anne Smith (Ronsdale $21.95) 2018

Reviewed by Joan Givner

The subject of Lisa Anne Smith's Emily Patterson: The Heroic Life of a Milltown Nurse was born in 1836 in Bath, Lincoln County, Maine. At the age of ten she refused to leave the room as a midwife delivered her mother's baby; instead she assisted at the birth, cutting the umbilical cord. The experience left her with a life-long interest in medicine and a sure sense of her vocation. She absorbed all the medical knowledge she could find and planned to attend the Geneva Medical College in New York to train as a nurse.

While marriage curtailed her plans for professional training, as it has done for many women, it did not end her career as a nurse. Wherever she lived, she adapted her skills and expanded her expertise. When she accompanied her seafaring husband, Captain John Patterson, on his ship to China, she cured scurvy, staunched injuries, and even used chloroform when pulling teeth. When her husband abandoned his career at sea for employment in the lumber industry, the change only expanded the scope of Emily's work. Nor did a growing family stop her from providing nursing services wherever needed. She eventually had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.

Having heard there was good harvestable timber in the Pacific Northwest, the Patterson family moved west, and for the rest of their lives the couple lived in small, often isolated mill towns. The first of these was Alberni on Vancouver Island. Looking at the thickly forested mountainside John said, "You see that! That's what we're here for. Nothing in the entire state of Maine ever compared.";

When the accessible stands of timber had been logged off, the family had to move. They went south to Willamette Valley in Oregon, then to a small operation in Butteville and finally north again to British Columbia. On arrival at the Burrard Inlet, they lived briefly at Hastings Mill before moving across the inlet to make a permanent home in Moodyville.

Emily was often the only person available in the area to provide the services of midwife, nurse, and doctor. The dining room table in the Patterson home was made to certain specifications in order to serve-protected by oil-treated canvas-as an impromptu operating table. Her reputation grew and even when a medical practice opened with a professionally trained physician, she was the healer of choice. One person she was not able to help was Gassy Jack who believed a shot of whiskey would do the job as well as any dose of medicine.

A feat for which she became famous was her legendary journey by canoe through stormy seas to answer a plea from the keeper of the Port Atkinson lighthouse to help his sick wife. On the hundredth anniversary of her death, a ballad, "The Heroine of Moodyville"; was published. Inspired by such ballads as "The Inchcape Rock"; and "The Wreck of the Hesperus"; (but with a happier outcome) it ran to twenty-seven rhyming tercets and was published in Chatelaine magazine as well as the Vancouver General Nurses Annual.

Before she died, Emily asked her daughter to record her life for future generations. Alice honoured that request, working with Vancouver's city archivist, Major James Skitt Matthews to amass an impressive collection of material from local papers and interviews. That archive is the basis for the present book. Because there were few direct words from Emily-none of the letters and diaries that generally animate a biographical subject-Lisa Anne Smith decided to use "a smattering of creative licence."; She combines the historical accuracy of a "life and times"; biography with the narrative technique of a novel, inserting imagined conversations and dramatic scenes.
The historical backdrop encompasses the notable events of Emily's time.

These include a description of San Francisco in the aftermath of the gold rush, where the family arrived after a three-week journey on the Panama railway. Since two of her married daughters later settled in San Francisco, the 1906 earthquake and fire affected her personally and she raised funds for those less fortunate than her daughters. At the end of their lives, when the Pattersons moved from Moodyville to downtown Vancouver, the anti-Asian riots of 1907, fomented by the Asiatic Exclusion League, happened literally on their doorstep, with rioters breaking neighbourhood windows.

Smith's passionate admiration for her subject gives the book a somewhat eulogistic tone with Emily depicted as the heroine of one incident after another. Fortunately, the author's inclusion of robust dialogue rescues the book from hagiography, as when Emily tells an unruly patient hurt in a tavern brawl, "You dare move and I'll hit you over the head with a club.";
Some readers might find the inclusion of text from archival sources to be jarring or clumsy by current standards. People "reside"; rather than live, babies are "welcomed into the world.";

John Patterson before his marriage transported "Negro slaves"; to New Orleans, and later "seemed to bear no disgruntlement to working under the command of a younger sibling.";

Nevertheless, Smith has shaped a vast amount of material, contextualized it with diligent research and produced an important addition to the annals of nursing.


Joan Givner is a biographer and novelist based in Victoria.


St. Roch: A Book for Kids (2001)

Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story (Ronsdale 2012) $21.95 ISBN 978-1-55380-146-7

Vancouver is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886 (Ronsdale 2014) $21.95 978-1-55380-322-1

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Our Friend Joe: The Joe Fortes Story

[BCBW 2014]