Elizabeth (Betty) Raffan was a midwife during World War II, and travelled Aberdeenshire delivering babies. She was a trailblazer for children with special needs in Guelph and Wellington County, a passionate advocate of inoculations and accessibility, and liked a good cigarette along with a cold local beer (and changed brands when it was bought by an International company). Betty is described as fiery, full of Christian faith, Scottish, tireless, generous and always having an opinion.
Betty died peacefully of a rapid and relatively pain-free cancer with the help of CCAC in the morning sun, surrounded by Elspeth, James and Helen and a beloved mandevilla plant in Puslinch, Ontario, on Thursday, October 30, 2014, at the age of 91.
Betty was born on a blustery day, August 18, 1923 in Kemnay Scotland, to Samuel and Michaelina McPherson. Samuel was employed as a Postman and Betty was the only daughter in a family of five boys – Ian, Sam, George, Bob and Colin. She benefitted from Scotland’s very rigid and firm educational system, with days spent in the one-room schoolhouse focusing squarely on her studies.
Betty would have loved to study medicine, but was discouraged by her father as he felt it was not proper for a woman to go to university. A local physician encouraged her to go into nursing. She trained as a nurse at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and became a ward sister. The North Sea was full of warships, and Betty would have to hop from ship to ship in the blackouts to bring sick patients to the hospital.
Betty nursed patients with infectious diseases, such as polio, diphtheria and tetanus. She saw first-hand the scourge and effects of these diseases, resulting in her passionate advocacy of vaccinations. Throughout her life, she often spoke about the children she had cared for and those who had died from these now preventable diseases.
While nursing, Betty met a surgeon in the Royal Navy named Hamish Raffan. She was struck by his kindness and adventuresome spirit. Shortly after, Betty started to practice midwifery in Nottingham – just like in the TV show “Call the Midwife” – with her cape and bicycle. When Surgeon Lieutenant Hamish was discharged from the Royal Navy after serving in the War, he began courting Betty. They married in Kemnay on February 23, 1952.
Dr. Simon Witt, a colleague of Hamish’s, from Bolton, England, had left for the “new world” and convinced Hamish and Betty to follow in his footsteps. Since there was very little opportunity for Hamish to work in his specialty, he and Betty came to Canada as economic immigrants with their infant daughter Elspeth in May 1953.
Betty and Hamish settled in Georgetown, Ontario where Hamish practiced internal medicine, as well as a general practice. They soon moved to Guelph, and the couple had three more children, with the birth of James, Helen and Gillian.
Betty initiated a Nursery for children with special needs in 1960 at the Norfolk United Church, with Betty being heavily involved. The Nursery was run one morning per week entirely by many wonderful and dedicated volunteers, providing respite to parents with special needs children, and the whole service was entirely free of charge to the parents. The Nursery program moved to Dublin United Church, with increasing days and number of children participating. Services expanded to include swimming and other therapies, with children coming from across Guelph and Wellington County. The Rotary Club of Guelph generously purchased a building on Beechwood Avenue in Guelph, which became the Rotary Children’s Centre. Betty was the Supervisor of services and programming from inception, and retired after years of selfless work.
The Rotary Children’s Centre eventually evolved into the organization KidsAbility, which continues to follow the original vision, supporting children with special needs and their families today.
Betty’s extraordinary efforts in advocacy for special needs and accessibility continued throughout her life. She went head-to-head with the Wellington County Board of Education in the 1960s to have special needs children integrated with the public school system. Helen recalls Betty saying to the school board, “You can’t fire me, I’m a volunteer and you just have to listen to me.”
Betty was involved with assisting the Guelph Services for the Physically Disabled in the 1980s when the Guelph Eaton Centre was being built in downtown Guelph. Betty found out that there were no accessible entrances for individuals with disabilities in the construction plans.
“Mum was steaming mad” said Elspeth. “She went to City Council to tell them that they needed to add an accessible entrance. They didn’t listen to her. But, five years later, they had to rip out the entrance and put an accessible one in. Those were the fights mum got into – I don’t know how she had the energy to take up these causes, but she just did.”
At the time, Betty also advocated tirelessly to have designated parking spots in the downtown parking lot, for which the City eventually and reluctantly agreed, although they refused to enforce them. So Betty would go down to the Baker Street Parking lot for days on end, stand in the parking space and would enforce it herself.
Serving others provided Betty with the most joy, as well as seeing her family together. Betty’s daughter Helen is a Landscape Architect in Peterborough and her son James is a well-known writer of over 20 books including the recent “Circling the Midnight Sun”, a retelling of his 3-year tour around the Arctic Circle. Daughter Elspeth works alongside her husband Dr. Ranjit Singh at his Guelph Neurology practice. Betty’s daughter Gillian struggles with mental illness, and Gillian’s journey moved Betty to become active assisting with the local group ‘Friends of Schizophrenia’ and together with Hamish, were active with the inception of Dunara Homes for Recovery in Guelph.
Along with her four children, Betty has six grand-children and four great-grandchildren, which she adored. Her family continues to grow, with another great-grandchild being born recently.
“Grandma was always very hospitable” shared grandson Rev. Graham Singh. “When I was in high school at John F. Ross, I would go swimming at Grandma’s on Riverview Drive with my Rugby buddies and she would make homemade burgers for us. My friends loved to visit Grandma Raffan.”
As a member of a various church and community choirs, Betty’s involvement in the Guelph church community was important to her. Initially they worshipped at Knox Presbyterian Church, and with Hamish they planted a Church and became Charter members of Kortright Presbyterian, and laterally worshipped at Westminster St. Paul’s. Her grandson Rev. Graham Singh is currently an active church planter in our community (like his grandma Betty) with Lakeside Downtown, which is the former Norfolk United Church (where his grandma Betty ran the Nursery many years before).
Betty took up botanical watercolour painting later in life. Her delicate paintings are treasured and will remain a legacy for many friends and family. Gardening and recycling were also her passions. Betty was also active in Guiding. The family recalls their dad affectionately known as “the Guide Commissioner’s husband.” She was also recognized by Rotary for her work and was made a Paul Harris Fellow. She won countless awards from the Guelph Horticultural Society for her prize hybrid tea roses.
In July 2015, Betty received a palliative cancer diagnosis.
“As fiery and independent as Mum was,” shared Elspeth, “it was heart-warming to see how gracious and thankful she was in allowing us to care for her in her final days. She cared for my father before he passed away in 2009, and it was an honour to be able to reciprocate the wonderful care that she gave to him and to all of us throughout her life.”