By Allyson Rowley, BA’77
When Susan French arrived at McGill in the early 1960s to pursue her Bachelor of Nursing, “it just clicked with me.” Although she had already studied and worked in Halifax, Bermuda and Boston, “at McGill I found the kind of nursing I was looking for—person centered and family focused. It was an exceptionally good program.”
It was also the beginning of a beautiful friendship. In 1965, she began her teaching career as a lecturer in McGill’s School of Nursing. After she received her MSc at Boston University in 1969, she returned to McGill for another year. She then left for a 31-year career at McMaster University, where she served as Associate Dean of Health Sciences (Nursing) and Director of its School of Nursing from 1980 to 1990. Along the way, she completed a PhD in Education at the University of Toronto.
“Then, McGill heard I was retiring from McMaster and persuaded me to come back,” recalls Dr. French. She returned to McGill in 2001 to serve as Associate Dean (Nursing) in the Faculty of Medicine and Director of the School of Nursing. “I said I’d come for three years. I stayed for four!” she recalls with a laugh. She retired again to Halifax, but was soon working part-time for Dalhousie University. Although she claims to have finally retired (a third time), Dr. French now serves as a consultant to the Newton Foundation, a Montreal-based charitable foundation devoted to supporting academic nursing at McGill and across the province of Quebec.
“She is really something special,” says philanthropist Richard Ingram, who with his wife Satoko founded the Newton Foundation 14 years ago. Mr. Ingram describes Dr. French as his “mentor,” whose contributions to the nursing profession are “absolutely phenomenal.”
Longstanding supporters of the School of Nursing, the Ingrams have established the Susan E. French Chair in Nursing Research and Innovative Practice, in honour of Dr. French. The inaugural holder of the endowed chair is Dr. Sean Clarke, himself a graduate of the School’s Direct Entry Program. (In appreciation of the Ingrams’ ongoing generosity to nursing not only at McGill but in the province of Quebec, the University announced the School’s new name—the Ingram School of Nursing—on September 10, 2012.)
The recipient of many awards and honours, Dr. French is recognized as an extraordinary leader who helped transform nursing teaching, practice and research across North America and around the world. She played a key role in the development of a national accreditation program for undergraduate nursing in Canada. From 1983 to 2003, she led a multi-phase project (with multi-million-dollar funding from CIDA) to develop nursing in Pakistan, including establishing the first undergraduate and graduate nursing programs in the country. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says.
Profile of Dr. Susan E. French, Director of the McGill School of Nursing from 2001 to 2005
While Director of McGill’s School of Nursing, Dr. French enjoyed collaborating with directors of nursing at affiliated institutions, as well as working with McGill’s own nursing faculty. “There are some very, very good people here.” She is pleased to note that enrolments are now back up—one of her main goals while Director.
When asked how nursing has evolved during her career, Dr. French notes the nurse’s role “has really changed over the years.” She cites nurses’ increased confidence—an undergraduate degree is now a requirement for entry into the profession, for example. She also emphasizes the value of inter-professional links among physicians, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, and so on. “It’s not about just one profession anymore.”
Dr. French also credits Montreal for its unique mix of the two languages (“it’s one of our strengths”), as well as its deep integration of education, research and practice. “There is real collaboration between practice and academics here,” she says.
What’s her advice to Dr. Clarke, the first holder of the Susan French Chair, who is also directing the newly formed McGill Nursing Collaborative? “I’d advise him to work hard to further the collaboration,” she says, adding: “You have a wonderful opportunity here.”