Louise de Kiriline Lawrence 1894-1992

The provincial plaque commemorating Louise de Kiriline Lawrence was unveiled by the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Nipissing Naturalists Club on Thursday, August 18, 2016 at the Ste. Bernadette Parish Hall in Bonfield, District of Nipissing. It was later installed at the Pimisi Bay Rest Area in Bonfield.

The provincial plaque reads as follows:


    Louise Flach was born in Sweden and grew up on the scenic Baltic coast where she developed an interest in nature. Flach became a Red Cross nurse, serving during the First World War in Denmark, and then with her first husband Greb de Kiriline who died in revolutionary Russia. She immigrated to Canada in 1927, settled near Bonfield, Ontario and was head nurse for the Dionne Quintuplets. In 1935, she retired from nursing to study the flora and fauna — specifically birds — near her log home located at the edge of Pimisi Bay west of here. Her writing included five wildlife books, 17 scientific papers, over 500 reviews and an autobiography. Her papers and research are preserved at Library and Archives Canada and at the Royal Ontario Museum. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence was an early environmentalist and an internationally renowned ornithologist recognized by the American Audubon Society, the Society of Canadian Ornithologists, the American Ornithologists’ Union and Laurentian University, and was the first Canadian to receive the John Burroughs Medal in 1969.

Historical background

Louise Vendela Augusta Jana de Kiriline Lawrence (née Flach) was born into a Swedish aristocratic family on April 27, 1894. Her father was a naturalist who instilled in her an interest in the natural world. As a child, she began observing the birds around her Baltic seaside estate. Her father also encouraged her to be “hardy and fearless.” Though introduced to Swedish royal society she: "left the table of opulence … hungry for something I could not identify or name, an opportunity to feel passion, a chance to spend energy and heart recklessly.”1 At age 17, she entered a Red Cross Nursing School and, with the outbreak of the First World War, served in a prisoner-of-war exchange camp in neutral Denmark. Here, she met and married a Russian officer, Greb de Kirilin in 1918. She followed him as a war nurse when he returned to Russia to serve as a liaison officer between the Russian White Army and the British Expeditionary Forces. With the triumph of the Russian Revolution, de Kiriline was imprisoned and he and his wife were separated. In a quest reminiscent of the novel Dr. Zhivago, Louise worked as a nurse at a children’s hospital and with the Nansen Swedish Relief Mission, all the while searching for her husband. She returned to Sweden unsuccessful and later learned that he had been killed during the Revolution.

In 1927, Louise emigrated to Canada, “not to nurse a broken heart, but to tend to something new that impetuously pressed through to live out the shattered fragments of a lost episode. And of all countries I chose Canada, because she, I knew, possessed the unspoiled soil, the life-giving space, the fresh winds that promote spontaneous growth.”2 She became a Red Cross nurse in the Northern Ontario community of Bonfield where her language skills — she was fluent in Swedish, Danish, Russian, French and English — well fitted her for a career in a multicultural resource-based environment. She soon became well known for her nursing skills, her aristocratic bearing and her penchant for making her nursing rounds by dogsled in winter.3

When the famous Dionne Quintuplets were born in nearby Callander in 1934, Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe asked her to become their head nurse and she helped the infants through their precarious first year of life. She was awarded the Jubilee Medal by King George V for this work but retired from nursing in 1935. Shortly thereafter, she penned The Quintuplets’ First Year, recounting her experiences. This entry into the world of writing resulted in a series of articles on the Dionne Quintuplets for Chatelaine magazine.4

In 1939, she married Leonard (Len) Lawrence and they settled on a small acreage on the edge of Pimisi Bay on the Mattawa River, halfway between North Bay and Mattawa. Here, where they built their “loghouse nest,” she returned to the study of nature and – encouraged by Percy A. Taverner, the first ornithologist at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature, and others — she began to band birds in her local area and to hone her observational and descriptive skills. She was soon writing reports and articles, a number of which were published by the American Audubon Society. She would go on to be their most prolific contributor.

In 1945, she published her first wildlife book, The Loghouse Nest, in which she documented the flora and fauna surrounding her home, with special attention to the birds. Her major scientific study, A Comparative Study of Four Species of Woodpeckers, was published by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1967. This was the result of detailed observations, and included drawings and descriptions “of the territoriality, movements, communications, pairing, sexual and ritualistic behaviours, breeding and nesting of Sapsuckers, Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers” that lived and nested near her log house.5 Two years later, she wrote The Lovely and the Wild. For this study, she was recognized by the John Burroughs Association of the United States, putting her in company with the likes of nature writers Rachel Carson and Ernest Thompson Seton. She was also granted the Sir Charles G.D. Robertson award in 1969 by the Canadian Authors Association.

In 1976, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence published Mar: A Glimpse into the Life of a Bird, a work in which she observed and meticulously documented the life of a single yellow-bellied sapsucker. The following year, she wrote the autobiographical Another Winter, Another Spring: A Love Remembered, in which she recounted her early experiences in Sweden as a young socialite destined for a comfortable life of privilege, in Denmark as a wartime nurse and in Russia as a fugitive from the Red Army and as a nurse searching for her missing husband — all before her mid-thirties. In 1980, she wrote To Whom the Wilderness Speaks about the deer, squirrels and birds that shared the landscape near her loghouse nest. This study won her the Francis H. Kortright Outdoor Writing award from the Canadian National Sportsmen’s Fund.

Louise de Kiriline Lawrence wrote over 500 reviews, 17 scientific papers and five books on wildlife as well as one on her experiences as nurse to the Dionne Quintuplets and an autobiography. Her books remain in print today. She once documented 22,197 distinct calls by a red-eyed vireo in a single 14-hour day. She became an elected member of the American Ornithologists’ Union. She was granted an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Laurentian University in 1970 and there is a scholarship there in her name. In 1990, her friend and fellow naturalist, Dr. Robert Nero, penned The Woman by the Shore in her honour.6 Shortly thereafter, she was awarded the Doris Huestis Speirs award for contributions to Canadian ornithology by the Society of Canadian Ornithologists.7

Louise de Kiriline Lawrence was an extraordinary woman who lived an incredible life. One could almost say “lives,” for there was Louise Flach — the privileged aristocrat who chose a career in nursing and served during the First World War — Louise de Kiriline — who nursed in revolutionary Russia and the “near north” of Ontario, and helped the Dionne Quintuplets survive their infancies — and Louise de Kiriline Lawrence — the self-taught observer of nature who documented the birds near her isolated cabin and became an internationally recognized naturalist. Friends who visited her in 1989 found the 95-year-old Louise observing her beloved birds, “barefoot, with sapphires dangling from her ears, the very picture of the aristocratic recluse.”

Her life and work are honoured today in a variety of ways. She is recognized as one of Callander’s famous citizens and North Bay holds an annual Louise de Kiriline Lawrence Nature Festival organized by the Nipissing Naturalists Club.8 She donated her observation notes, drawings and extensive correspondence to the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa where they are permanently preserved for current and future generations of naturalists and other scholars. Another collection of her material is held by Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. Several young scholars — particularly young women scholars — have been captivated by her life experiences, her tenacity of spirit and her melding of times and cultures. They have delved into her collected observations and notes in pursuit of their own goals and aspirations and have published their work on the Internet, a fitting tribute to an outstanding individual who chose to call Canada her home.9

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Robert J. Burns in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2016

1 Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, Another Winter, Another Spring: A Love Remembered, (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 1989), p. 29.

2 Louise de Kiriline, “Why did you come to Canada?” Chatelaine, October 1937, p. 53.

3 Doug Mackey, “Remembering the Late, Great Lady: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence,” Heritage Perspectives, Past Forward Heritage Limited, accessed April 2016.

4 Library and Archives Canada, “Louise de Kiriline Lawrence fonds,” Finding Aid 1742 for record group MG 31, J 18, the papers of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence.

5 Submission for a heritage plaque to honour the achievements of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence prepared by the Nipissing Naturalists Club for the Ontario Heritage Trust.

6 Robert W. Nero, Woman on the Shore and other poems: a tribute to Louise de Kiriline Lawrence (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 1990), p. 3.

7 The Society of Canadian Ornithologists website, accessed April 2016.

8 “Famous Citizens,” Municipality of Callander website, “2015 Festival a Success!!” and “Honouring Louise,” Nipissing Naturalists Club.

9 Kirsten Greer and Sonje Bols, both at Nipissing University presented the paper “’She of the Loghouse Nest’: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence (1894-1992), bird and fieldwork in Ontario’s ‘Near North,’” International Conference of Historical Geographers 2015, Amy C. Wallace, a doctoral candidate in the history of art at the University of Toronto recently published online “Barefoot in Sapphires: Painting Louise de Kiriline Lawrence,” an essay that reveals the remarkable influence that Lawrence, her life and her work continue to exert, Bon à Tirer: The Western [University] Undergraduate Journal of Art History and Visual Culture.