A promotional card for a working women's maternity fund, 1920s, Institute of the Working Woman, Spain (via National Library of Medicine)

Promotional card for a working women’s maternity fund, 1920s, Institute of the Working Woman, Spain (all images courtesy US National Library of Medicine)

Whether angel on the battlefield or vixen of the hospital ward, the depiction of the nurse has changed over time to reflect different perceptions on gender, health, and medicine. The US National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, is looking at the transformation of the 20th-century nurse in Pictures of Nursing, a display in its History of Medicine Division Reading Room and an online exhibition of over 500 digitized postcards.

Great White Army Courtesy National Library of Medicine - Copy

Great White Army, Italian Red Cross promotional postcard (1915)

The focus on medical history postcards came from a recently acquired archive of more than 2,500 of them, amassed by Michael Zwerdling, a nurse and collector. Featuring advertisements, propaganda, photographs, and institutional iconography, the postcards evoke the cultural and societal ideas of an era. The Pictures in Nursing site argues that “no other art form has illustrated the nursing profession so profusely using such a variety of artistic styles and images.”

Curator Julia Hallam of the University of Liverpool explained to Smithsonian Magazine that she “wanted to communicate a history of nursing that placed it in the context of rapid changes in society and gave birth to modern professional nursing and the gendering of the profession.” One photograph captures the 1901 nursing students at the George A. Brewster Hospital, which was opened specifically for treating African Americans injured in the 1901 Great Fire of Jacksonville, Florida; another shows a Scottish rural nurse in 1926 astride her motorcycle. Older postcards, from the late 19th to early 20th century, visualize nurses as classical archetypes like healers or handmaidens, or as Amazons battling diseases represented by snakes or dragons. During World War II, nurses were shown striding confidently into war alongside guns and tanks, while mid-century the postcards sometimes playfully hint at sexual fantasy. Since the 1980s the nurse is mostly depicted as a skilled healthcare worker — and not always as a woman. Below are some selections from Pictures in Nursing that display the many faces of the “Great White Army.”

An Amazon shown battling disease personified as dragons in an advertisement for a cure-all tonic, ca. 1910, Valieri Laboratories, Malaga, Spain (via National Library of Medicine)

An Amazon battling dragons that represent disease, advertisement for a cure-all tonic from Valleri Laboratories, Malaga, Spain (1910)

Rural visiting nurse Elizabeth McPhee Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Rural visiting nurse Elizabeth McPhee, Scotland (1926)

(Glory to our Sisters in the Fight), Soviet Union (today Russia), 1942, (via National Library of Medicine)

“Glory to our Sisters in the Fight,” Soviet Union (1942)

A commemorative postcard showing the British nurse Edith Cavell, ca. 1915, L. Salomone Graphic Arts Publishing, Rome (via National Library of Medicine)

Commemorative postcard showing British nurse Edith Cavell (1915), L. Salomone Graphic Arts Publishing, Rome

An illustration showing an upper class Russian woman giving up her wealth and becoming a nurse to serve the country, 1914, illustrated by Alexander Nayden (via National Library of Medicine) A. Levenson, Moscow

Illustration of an upper-class Russian woman giving up wealth to be a nurse (1914), illustrated by Alexander Nayden

Brewster Nurse Training School Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Brewster Nurse Training School, Jacksonville, Florida (1908)

Army Nurse Corps poster Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Army Nurse Corps recruitment poster for WWII

Pictures of Nursing continues at the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division Reading Room (8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, Maryland) through August 21, 2015.  

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...