Elsie Cressman and midwifery in Ontario

Elsie Cressman was for many years a medical missionary in Africa. But what made her famous was her role in achieving legal status for midwifery in Ontario. Her pioneering efforts were not without personal consequences for Elsie. At age 75 she was sued in relationship to a birth 13 years earlier. This experience led to further clarification of the rules for informed-consent in relation to midwives.

The article below, written by Howard Bean, from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), relates Elsie’s conservative Mennonite background and a hint of her personality. See the article for bibliography and a link to a news article about Elsie.

A book by Nancy Silcox, Elsie Cressman: A Trailblazing Life, provides more information.


Elsie Cressman in Africa, 1960s. Family photo.

Elsie Cressman: missionary and midwife; born 13 April 1923 in Wilmot Township, Ontario, Canada, to Curtis and Amanda (Byler) Cressman, the fourth in a family of 4 daughters and 2 sons. She never married. She died 11 September 2012 in New Hamburg, Ontario. She became a Christian in her youth and became a member of the Biehn Mennonite Church (later Nith Valley) where her father was a pastor.

Elsie attended Niagara Christian College, Goshen College (Indiana), and Eastern Mennonite College (Virginia), and attained a Bachelor of Arts degree. She chose nursing as a career and graduated as a registered nurse from St. Mary’s Hospital in Kitchener. Elsie spent two years at Mennonite Children’s Home in Kansas City, Kansas, caring for the medical needs of 70 children.

In 1953 the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities approached Elsie, and asked her establish a leprosarium in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) on the shore of Lake Victoria. Elsie accepted the challenge and was instrumental in turning a no-man’s land of briars, thorns, vines, and rocks into an attractive area of huts, medical dispensary, medical wards, and a chapel surrounded by flowers and fruit trees. After 15 years of leprosy work and attending the births of numerous infants, Elsie enrolled at Mothers’ Hospital in London, England, to become a certified midwife. She returned to Africa and managed a medical clinic on Rusinga Island, Kenya, for three years. She supervised the delivery of over 1000 babies there. She also spent several months inSomalia under the Eastern Mennonite Mission Board.

Upon returning to Canada in the late 1970s, Elsie attended Grace Mennonite Fellowship until her death. She worked at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario, for a time before concentrating her energies on providing midwifery services to those who desired a home birth. She was instrumental in attaining legal status for midwifery in Ontario and was awarded the Order of Ontario for her efforts. She helped establish a birthing center in St. Jacobs, and helped to deliver over 3000 babies. Many Old Order Mennonitesappreciated this service.

Elsie was the subject of a Metamedia television documentary, Return to Africa, in 2010. In 2012, Nancy Silcox wrote Elsie’s biography, Elsie Cressman: A Trailblazing Life, which includes accounts of her shooting a hippopotamus, riding a motorcycle, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Elsie’s strong personality and love for adventure enabled her to pursue goals that were unusual for women of her generation. In 2013, Elsie was inducted into the Waterloo County Hall of Fame.

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