The Nurse Behind the Uniform: “Hers was a life of service”

March 20, 2023

The registered nurse who wore the 1940s nursing uniform that has featured so prominently in ONA’s 50th anniversary celebrations cared far beyond the bedside.

Born more than 100 years ago in 1922, Margaret Hum Mui graduated from nursing in Montreal before moving to Toronto, where she would remain up until her death at the age of 92 in 2015. What she accomplished in between those years was nothing short of astounding.

Modelled by her Father

“Hers was a life of service, as modelled by her father, who arrived in Canada from mainland China in 1907 at the age of 14,” said Margaret’s daughter, Wendi Mui-Tummers, who generously donated her mother’s uniform to ONA. “He bought a grocery store in Montreal’s Chinatown, and delivered goods to his customers using a horse and cart. Whenever he came across a sick customer, he would put them in his cart and take them to Montreal General Hospital. And since they often didn’t speak English, he acted as their interpreter and informally diagnosed their ailments, which he shared with hospital staff. He visited them every day. Due to these frequent long absences from his store, Margaret’s mother often stepped in to take orders while taking care of her children. Even when he retired, he continued doing this volunteer work. In fact, in1976, the hospital dedicated a wrought iron bulletin board decorated with brass engravings in both Chinese and English to him for his long-standing contribution. He had a business card that read, Thomas Hum, Volunteer Everything. So, this was the life my mother saw.”

And clearly emulated. The second eldest of five children, Margaret, who spoke three languages, studied nursing at Sir George Williams University in Montreal and completed her training at the Catherine Booth Hospital in 1948. Graduating at the top of her class, she was chosen to be valedictorian, and her daughter still has the original speech she typed, complete with handwritten corrections.

“My mother grew up in a religious family,” Wendi explained. “At one service at St. James United Church, she was so inspired by the speaker, Dr. Robert McClure, who was on furlough from missionary work in China, that she decided to follow in his footsteps and become a missionary.”

Seal of Fate

That decision moved her to Toronto for missionary training with the United Church of Canada. While waiting for her opportunity to leave for China, Margaret took a job at the Esther Street Catherine Booth Rescue Home and Maternity Hospital (now the Toronto Grace Hospital).

“It started as a rescue home opened by the Salvation Army in 1889,” Wendi explained. “When my mother worked there, it provided obstetrical services to unmarried women and care for their babies. She felt this was an underserved population and she wanted to provide support and help to these young women – and she loved children. At that time, who knows what family reactions might have been to these young women. They may have been sent away for their entire pregnancies. So, it was my mother’s calling to go to this hospital, and she really enjoyed nursing there. She felt that even though nursing is a whole profession of service and helping, this particular population really spoke to her.”

And while her intention was still to eventually work as a missionary in China, fate had other plans.

“At a University of Toronto social event, she met my dad, Wing Mui, a young civil engineer who came to the city to work on his Master of Engineering degree after studying and working as an assistant professor at the prestigious Sun Yat Sen University in China. And, of course, the rest is history. They fell in love, got married, and chose to stay in Toronto. She remained at the maternity hospital for her entire career and my father never returned to his beloved homeland. So, both of their lives changed that day.”

Charitable Endeavours

What didn’t change, however, was Margaret’s strong desire to give back.

“My mother was influenced by her family background, and she would never let anyone who didn’t have family spend Christmas by themselves,” noted Wendi. “So, we always had two or three of her single nursing friends join us every year. In fact, I can’t remember a single Christmas without them. They were like family! And this is a practice that we continue to this day.”

Equally as charitable outside the home, Margaret and Wing were charter members of Donway United, a church in their Toronto suburb of Don Mills, where “she was one of the first women elders of the church, did volunteer work, helped with fundraising, taught Sunday school and was a member of several different committees, including the United Church Women’s group,” said Wendi. “And again, following with her life of service, she was the one picking up and dropping off people who needed help getting to and from the meetings.”

From there, her charitable endeavours only grew. In 1964, she and her husband were founding members of the renowned Mon Sheong Foundation (MSF), dedicated to promoting Chinese culture by caring for the elderly and enriching the cultural and social lives of young people.

“A lot of Chinese men had come to Canada to work on the railways, but because of the Chinese Head Tax [1885-1923] and the Chinese Exclusion Act/Chinese Immigration Act [1923-1947], which virtually halted all emigration from China, they were unable to bring their families over and had to live alone,” explained Wendi. “It was particularly lonely for them in their senior years. So, a group of Chinese-Canadians, including my parents, decided it would be good if these hardworking people had a place where they could speak their own language, eat their own food, and be taken care of by health-care workers who also spoke their language in their retirement. That became my parents’ primary focus.”

The couple sat on the MSF’s Board of Directors and participated in all fundraising activities, which Wendi noted was much more difficult in the foundation’s infancy because no one had heard of it. That hard work paid off when, in 1975, the foundation was able to open their first of three homes for the aged in downtown Toronto, with Margaret serving as recording secretary. She remained on the Board of Directors until her passing (her husband predeceased her), with her daughter taking her to meetings when she could no longer drive herself. While she and her husband were recipients of a “Special Recognition Long Time Volunteer” plaque in 1996 for their outstanding contribution to the foundation, it wasn’t their first award, nor would it be their last.

“In 1994, at the 25th anniversary of the Mon Sheong Foundation Youth Group (MSFYG), my mother received a plaque for founding the group and becoming its first advisor,” said Wendi. “In Don Mills, you could count on two hands the number of people of Chinese ancestry, and she felt there was a need for us to meet other young people of our ancestry, to learn about our culture, and to also help the Mon Sheong Foundation fundraise. She nurtured, guided and assisted the MSFYG in its formative years. The group continues to this day.”

In 2009, Margaret and Wing were again recognized for their “foresight and contributions” as founding members of the MSF. And with a life so selflessly focused on others, it is not surprising that in 2012, Margaret also received a very special honour: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for her significant lifetime contributions and achievements.

Yet despite the accolades, Wendi said her mother remained humble and gracious throughout her nine decades.  Even though she moved to the second of the MSF’s homes for the aged after the passing of Wing, she never told any staff or residents about her involvement in helping build it. Only the home’s director knew her from Margaret’s early years volunteering in the first home for the aged where the director used to work before being transferred.

Family Ties

Today, Margaret’s legacy lives on, not only in her four children, all of whom are active in their communities, but in her eight grandchildren, including Wendi’s daughter Nicole, who also became a nurse and is currently working in a Toronto hospital not far from where her grandmother’s career began and ended.

“It’s interesting how it all ties together,” Wendi noted. “Nicole did her clinical placement in palliative care at the Toronto Grace Hospital where my mother worked. To complete the circle, now she is working in the labour and delivery/obstetrics and gynecology department – the same department as my mother. She is also an ONA member.”

But, she adds when looking at a photo of her mother and daughter together, taken at the home for the aged where Margaret resided, there are visible differences.

“There’s my mother in her starched white uniform, crisscrossed on the top with the apron, with her starched white cap. She is also wearing her beautiful black cape with the bright red lining. Then there’s my daughter wearing her comfy scrubs that come in all kinds of colours and designs. How things have changed! I donated my mother’s uniform to ONA because of its historical significance. I think there are many people who haven’t seen these vintage uniforms before. I wanted to share and showcase it, so that it could be appreciated by others and have a life beyond my house. It’s wonderful that others can now learn Margaret’s story. She had a busy life of volunteering and giving to others. It was full and beautiful.”