Allisonian Archives

Grace under fire

Elizabeth (Rising) Howell (’39) served as a dietitian with the RCAF during the Second World War
By: Renée Belliveau (’17)

When Elizabeth (Rising) Howell graduated from Mount Allison in 1939, it was with dreams of becoming a dietetics teacher. But as the world plunged into war, her life took an unforeseen turn.

Known to her friends as Lib, Elizabeth left her hometown of Saint John, NB at the age of 17 to pursue an associate course of home economics at the MacDonald Institute in Guelph, ON, laying the foundation for her Bachelor of Science in Home Economics at Mount Allison. Shortly after graduation, she enrolled with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), becoming one of 17,000 women who served with the RCAF during the Second World War. Forty-five of these women came from Mount Allison. Elizabeth was one of the very few who ended up in London’s Bomb Alley during the Blitz.

Howell at her Mount Allison graduation, 1939

“If anybody was unsuited to being a warrior, it was my mother,” says her son Bill Howell. “And yet, she had an incredible sense of duty.”

Elizabeth was put in charge of feeding airmen at the British Commonwealth Air Training School in Debert, NS.

Dietitians had served in military hospitals during the latter half of the First World War, but their integration across all three branches of the Canadian military during the Second World War marked a significant development in the profession. Tasked with planning and implementing nutrition programs for all military personnel, they played a key role in safeguarding the health of the armed forces while navigating rationing, food shortages, and a host of other challenges, as Elizabeth quickly realized.

“There was a fair bit of food theft,” says Bill. “Mom would fill orders and it would come up short, again and again.”

While the authorities seemed to be unable to stop the thriving black market, Elizabeth’s quiet resolve had profound influence on the people around her.

“Word went out that Lib was pissed off — and it stopped,” says Bill.

Though her official duties did not involve airplanes, Elizabeth’s work with the RCAF sparked an interest in flying.

“Guys would date her by taking her up in planes,” says Bill. “You couldn’t get her down. She just loved flying.”

But it was a Royal Navy surgeon who caught her attention. After Denis Howell’s ship was torpedoed while on convoy duty in the North Atlantic, he found himself in Saint John, NB. Their paths crossed at a dance while Elizabeth was home visiting her parents.

“One of the famous stories was regarding socks,” says Bill. “He had a duffel bag full of socks with holes in them and he asked Mom if she would darn them. And she said, ‘No, but I’ll teach you how to darn.’”

The next few years proved challenging for their growing relationship. Denis was posted to Madagascar, India, Africa, and Burma, while Elizabeth was transferred to Halifax, then Bermuda, becoming one of few RCAF women who served overseas. Their letters chased each other across continents until Denis contracted malaria and was returned to England, where Elizabeth eventually joined him. Still in uniform, and still feeding airmen while bombs rained down on London, she faced the full horror of war, sticking it out until the very end.

Through it all, their sons say Elizabeth offered Denis invaluable emotional support.

“He had a traumatic war experience, and it was the two of them trying to get together through all of that,” says son Robert Howell. “That was an adventure on its own.”

The couple married in September 1944 in Fort William, Scotland and welcomed twin boys Bill and Robert in Liverpool, England in February 1946. Within ten months, the family had relocated to Halifax, NS. The war had an enormous impact on both of them, but six long years of war had finally come to an end and they were eager to move on.

Elizabeth and Denis Howell with twins Bill and Robert, 1946

Having earned his medical degree in London, England, Denis had to rewrite his medical exams to practice in Canada. After completing a residency in dermatology at the University of Toronto and McMaster University, he brought the family back to Halifax, where he joined the staff of the Victoria General Hospital and the Department of Medicine at Dalhousie University. Elizabeth settled into her role as a physician’s wife, though she returned to work as a dietitian at Victoria General Hospital for close to a decade.

“She really supported him,” says Robert. “She provided a home base for him.”

Both actively participated in their community and church. They lost a daughter, Mary Lee, when she was two months old in 1950. When their fourth child, Peter, was born with an intellectual disability two years later, they devoted themselves to his care. They also became highly involved with the local branch of what is now known as Inclusion Canada, a federation advocating for the full inclusion and human rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Denis even served as president of Inclusion Canada for a time.

They never hesitated to give back what little they had.

“They instilled in us an enormous gratitude for how lucky we were to have what we had in this world,” says Bill. “I think that sense of having done without for five years, and before then, the Depression, really shaped their world. There was always the sense in our family that if we were going to get there, we were all going to get there together.”

It’s a quality Elizabeth also impressed on her five granddaughters, with whom she was close.

“She was always thoughtful, always caring for everybody else,” says Emily Howell.

Elizabeth (Rising) Howell passed away in 2012 after a battle with Alzheimer’s, but never lost the qualities that defined her.

“She’s got an incredible story,” says Allison Howell Quinton. “And through it all, she managed to keep that grace under fire. When I think of the word graceful, I think of her.”

This article is part of a two-part series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force (1924-2024), focusing on Allisonians at war. Read the companion article about Don Norton ('42), A legacy of leadership.