Remembering Margaret Ellis’ Legacy of Health and Safety

Remembering Margaret Ellis’ Legacy of Health and Safety

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As Chewonki, like the rest of the globe, becomes immersed in critical questions of health, safety, and overall wellness, it is helpful to remember that we had an early guiding star in this work. When Tim Ellis became the first director of the newly formed nonprofit Chewonki Foundation in 1966, his wife Margaret (1939 – 2011) also brought her prodigious skills in nursing and healing. Using a holistic approach that combined clinical experience with reliance on the healing powers of the outdoors, emotional support, community, and spirituality, Margaret became the first director of health and safety at Chewonki and set the template for future work in this area. 

Born in London and largely raised in the Channel Islands, Margaret wanted to care for people from a young age. She became a nurse in 1960 and a midwife in 1963. Margaret and Tim met at the Leysin American School in Switzerland, where she worked as a nurse and he as a teacher. Married in 1964, they came to Maine shortly thereafter and spent the next 25 years shaping the Chewonki we know and love today. Along the way, she became a certified nurse practitioner in 1981 and earned a BS in nursing from Westbrook College (now University of New England) in 1985 and an MS in nursing from Simmons College in 1996.

In addition to her role at Chewonki, Margaret worked as a nurse for various practices in Wiscasset and later Brunswick. She brought her medical colleagues on board as advisors, instituting medical policies and services far ahead of where most camps and outdoor programs were at the time. Margaret kept an eye on all the places where medical care might be needed, such as on trips (she was an accomplished tripper herself), as Don Hudson remembered. “In 1976, for example, Margaret insisted that Dave Barrington and I include both epinephrine and morphine in our medical kit for the Mistassini trip. Dr. Paul Dumdey wrote the prescription orders and Margaret taught us to give proper injections. Off we went into the wilderness of central Quebec!” In the mid 1980s, Margaret met Dr. Peter Goth, who went on to found Wilderness Medical Associates. The two hit it off, and his work in the emerging field of  backcountry medical care reinforced all the practices and protocols that Margaret had already put in place at  Chewonki.   

Greg Shute remembers that “Margaret was a big believer in soap and water as a first line of defense in keeping people healthy.  She was also an excellent teacher and mentor to hundreds of staff over the years. She instructed with a no-nonsense serious delivery and she had a wonderful sense of humor.”  

After Tim and Margaret retired from Chewonki in 1991,  she transitioned into a second career focused on humanitarian health care, serving as a nurse practitioner in Native communities in Alaska and Arizona and in the Dominican Republic. But she always remained deeply connected to Chewonki. Notes President Willard Morgan, “Margaret’s spheres of greatest influence–gardening, health, and nutrition–have become fundamental to Chewonki programs.” 

Margaret Ellis’ legacy continues to guide Chewonki, and never more so than in this moment. Her beautiful gardens provide comfort and joy to all those who spend time on campus, and her untiring support of the health and wellness of our community provides a shining beacon to guide us through this crisis.

The Ladies of the Dirt: The Ladies of the Dirt. L to R: Pansy, Poppy, Verbena, Peony, Zinnia and Lupine (L to R: Margaret Ellis, Patti Mendes, Sara Walbridge, Susie Stedman, Jan Slater, and Lisa Paige.

by Anne Schlitt, Executive Assistant to the President and Chewonki Archivist