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dave obee Eleanor Shackleton was a hero, too

By Dave Obee
March, 2002

Her name was Eleanor. She devoted her life to nursing, to caring for the sick, so her middle name, Hope, seems quite appropriate.

She lived a fascinating, busy life that could have been the subject of books and films -- yet she always lived in the shadow of her elder brother, even five decades after she last saw him.

Eleanor was born in 1879 in Ireland. Her father, Henry, had wanted to join the army, but his health was poor, so he became a farmer instead. After some crop failures, Henry took up medicine. Henry and his wife, Henrietta, moved their family to England in 1884.

Eleanor took nurse's training at Guy's Hospital in London, England. She took post-graduate work in the Babies' Hospital in New York City.

During her career, she worked as a nurse in England, Greece, France, the United States and Canada.

During the First World War Eleanor served with the British Expeditionary Force in Egypt, Salonica and Gallipoli. She was a nursing sister of the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service.

She was a pioneer of the Winnipeg Children's Hospital and one of the first to start a nurse training school there.

She moved to Victoria in 1944, found a home on Oak Bay Avenue, and joined the staff of Royal Jubilee Hospital. She became a member of the local unit of the Canadian Nursing Sisters' Association.

She retired in 1959 in her 80th year, an incredible accomplishment considering the 65-and-out attitude we've adopted in recent times. By the time she completed her last shift, Eleanor had devoted 56 years to caring for others.

After she retired, she headed off on a vacation to England and Ireland, where she visited her birthplace in County Kildare.

She then returned home to Victoria. She died here in January 1960, less than a year after she retired.

And now, 42 years after her death, a film about Eleanor Hope Shackleton's brother Ernest is playing at the National Geographic Imax Theatre in Victoria.

That crowds are flocking to see the story of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition of 1914-1916, and the remarkable survival of all 27 crew members from his ship Endurance, should be no surprise. It's an inspiring, must-see movie, filled with excitement and drama and the struggle to stay alive. It makes extensive use of footage shot by a photographer who was on the journey, which adds more power to an already strong documentary.

The expedition was supposed to be the first crossing of the Antarctic, but it had to be abandoned when its ship became caught in ice and was crushed. The crew then had to embark on a desperate race to safety, with no hope of help coming from anyone but themselves. Incredibly, they made it.

Ernest Shackleton got the Antarctic bug in 1901, and was one of the best-known explorers of the continent by the time of his death in 1922. He has been the subject of several books and documentaries, and certainly deserves all the attention that's been going his way lately.

In virtually any other family, the life of Eleanor Hope Shackleton would be considered remarkable. Eleanor had the misfortune, however, of being born into a family with more than one high achiever, so she found herself living in the shadow of her famous brother for her entire adult life.

Her death made the headlines in the local newspapers for one reason. "Sister of explorer dies in hospital," the Daily Colonist said. "Famed Arctic explorer's sister dies," the Times said, apparently confusing one end of the Earth with the other.

While Eleanor did live in Ernest's shadow, she didn't seem to mind.

She was interviewed by the Times in 1956, soon after the discovery of the base camp used by her brother on his 1908 expedition to the South Pole. The camp was still standing at the base of Mount Erebus, with food, darkroom supplies and some 1907 copies of Punch magazine looking almost like new.

"I am very glad that my brother is still remembered," she said. "I do feel strongly that our schools do not teach enough about British explorers.

"I am glad, too, that my brother was able to leave so much behind in the way of food and equipment for future explorers. That was always his creed -- he believed explorers should leave as much as possible for those who followed them."

She said her brother -- whom she referred to as Sir Ernest -- was able to live up to this belief despite all the difficulties he had encountered.

It's safe to assume that Eleanor saw her share of difficulties, too, but she stayed committed to her goal, which was to help others. For 56 years.

While the crowds at the Imax are quite understandably oohing and aahing over Ernest Shackleton's will to survive against formidable odds, his remarkable sister Eleanor Hope Shackleton lies at rest in Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich.

She, too, was a hero in her own way.

Dave Obee is editorial page editor of the Times Colonist newspaper in Victoria, B.C. This column appeared in the Times Colonist.

Reprinted courtesy the Times Colonist


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