Can You Believe?


If nurses today could experience a time warp back to the 1950s they would discover a much different profession than the one they are accustomed to.

Hard to believe, but nurses used to:

  • Smoke at the nurses’ station in front of patients and visitors.
  • Soak cotton balls in peppermint oil and put them in the bedpan in an effort to make patients pee. It didn’t always work for the patient but it almost always sent the nurse running to the bathroom.
  • Set the rate on an IV using their trusty watch with a second hand, counting the drops for a full minute, adjusting the clamp until a rate of twenty-five drops a minute was established. This rate infused one hundred cc’s in an hour.
  • Manually crank up the bed every time a patient wanted her head raised, only to return and lower it again when she wanted to lie flat
  • Wear white stockings with seams, white shoes with eight eyelets and a perky little cap, which signified the school you graduated from. Their starched uniforms fell just above the ankle.
  • Serve meals to the patients, dishing the portions from a heated food truck being mindful that all thirty patients on the unit needed to eat. Too big portions to the first patients meant the last patients to be served would go hungry.
  • Make the coffee and toast and sometimes boil eggs for the patients’ breakfast in between making rounds on all the patients and finishing the night shift duties.
  • Use plain old Arm & Hammer baking soda for a variety of ills: a tablespoon mixed in water for heartburn; a teaspoon, combined with a rhubarb solution, to soothe an upset stomach; a pinch added to a dose of castor oil mixed with orange juice, to give it a little fizz, made the dreaded dose a little more palatable.
  • Give 3H soap and water enemas to relieve constipation – high, hot and a hell of a lot.
  • Stand up and offer the doctors our chairs when they entered the nurses’ station.  The doctors never refused to take them.
  • Package and sterilize rubber gloves for reuse by blowing them up to check for any holes, folding, powdering, and wrapping them in paper, before autoclaving.
  • Wear gloves only when working in the operating room or caring for a patient with open sores from leprosy or syphilis. Before the gloves could be obtained for any other situation, a written doctor’s order had to be in place.
  • At the end of each shift, examine all the needles used for injections for burrs and if necessary grind them with a pumice stone before placing them in a container and sterilizing.
  • Clean and sterilize used urinary catheters for reuse.
  • Use large sized mayonnaise jars to collect 24 hour sputum specimens on the tuberculosis patients.
  • Dispense different colored aspirin for a variety of maladies – green for a fever, white for a headache or minor pain, pink for more severe pain. Same dose, different color.
  • Treat the sores caused by syphilis with a solution of mercury soaks applied directly to the open wound. The mental illness seen in the last stages of the disease was most likely caused by the absorption of mercury, not, as previously believed, the syphilis.

How times have changed! Thankfully, nurses no longer need to know how to run an autoclave or stand up when the physician enters the room, but they do need to know how to start an IV and read an EKG – skills the nurses of the 1950s never dreamed of acquiring.

About the author:

Lynn Dow is a seasoned nurse with laugh-out-loud stories spanning 50 years in the profession. Told with humor and compassion, her new book Nightingale Tales (out Oct. 3), provides an unusual and highly entertaining window into the world of medicine from the mid-twentieth century to the present.



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