Nursing in the 1960s

Image: Halifax Chidren’s Hospital School of Nursing

That groovy decade is cool once again thanks to the hit TV show Mad Men.

Below, see what nursing was like in the days of Don Draper.



In the 1960s:

  • Nurses were expected to stand when a physician entered the room
  • Most nurses still wore white dresses — and starched nurse caps
  • The American Nurses Association recommended a Bachelor of Science in Nursing as the minimum education requirement for entry into the profession of nursing
  • Male students began entering nursing schools
  • The first nurse practitioner (NP) programs were born
  • President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law, promising that “no longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years.”
  • A key theme of the 1969 American Hospital Association annual convention was the crisis in healthcare, “characterized by the fragmentation of care delivery and a lack of responsiveness by providers to the needs of the community.”

Sound familiar? What would you say has been the most significant advance in nursing over the past 50 years?

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Jennifer Fink, RN, BSN

Jennifer is a professional freelance writer with over eight years experience as a hospital nurse. She has clinical experience in adult health, including med-surg, geriatrics and transplant; she also has a particular interest in women’s health and cancer care. Jennifer has written a variety of health and parenting articles for national publications.

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8 Responses to Nursing in the 1960s

  1. Wow! 41 years later, we still have “a fragmentation of care delivery and a lack of responsiveness by providers to the needs of the community”! At least we did where I worked in Mississippi. The biggest change I noticed is that we don’t have to wear the white caps anymore.

  2. One Change today is that we don’t have to stand when a Doctor enters the room. Yes some still stand but its not a requirement in nursing. Most nurses are busy taking care of patients they don’t have time to worry about whom is entering the room or leaving the room.

  3. Ann

    The more things change the more they stay the same, don’t they? I’m one of those nurses from the 60’s myself and I can attest to all sorts of rules/regulations we had in the culture of nursing back then. The biggest changes I saw were in the attitudes of physicians toward nurses, and of course, the dress code which is probably the most drastic change that happened. I recall being so dead tired at times, dripping in sweat from oftentimes working where there was no A/C (can you believe that? in the Deep South – hot and humid- in MS and LA- having to relinquish the ONLY chair in the nurses station to any physician that came on the ward. My poor feet would be throbbing and I’d be trying to catch up on charting, and sitting down for the first time in the shift (which btw, was only 8 hrs. long back then) but have to immediately snap to attention when the frock coats showed up. In the late ’70’s we experimented with nursing pant suits and I remember how uncomfortable it felt to be wearing pants in front of people in public. Crazy, no? Then, specialty nurses graduated to wearing scrubs (ONLY in the units we worked in however, never outside them nor esp. NEVER outside the hospital itself). There was also a big change in documentation about that time and SOAP, then SOAPIE came into vogue. Actually, I think that was a great change myself and more meaningful than just the charting of AM/PM care, peri care, bed bath, bedrest, wound care, etc. that was just a statement of the obvious and routine care one received in hospital. Nurses also began to do more complex procedures that had once been only within the realm of physicians and surprisingly became adept at them, often at the dismay of certain doctors who began to feel nurses were trying to crowd them out somehow. Nowadays, I’m retired. I grieved upon leaving the profession with which I’d had a love/hate relationship in the latter years of my career. Now I simply look back fondly and wish I could somehow relive some of those times but, of course, with the knowledge and understanding I have today. Ha! Wishful thinking. I still think nursing is a marvelous profession and will always be needed, but often I find myself wondering if a good number of candidates today go into it mainly for the money or prestige and not primarily for caring and compassion for patients. I hope this is an error in thinking on my part. I have had some truly amazing nurses take good care of me in the past several years when I’ve needed care but I’ve also experienced some of the other types too who I thought would be much better if they’d have gone into something entirely different, or at least, where they weren’t involved in direct patient care. There is a shortage of nurses, WHY??

  4. Shirlee Boyd

    I graduated from the School of Vocational Nursing, Lubbock, Tx in the early 60’s & still working. Nursing had to be my “Calling”, I absolutely love what I do however, so much “paper work” is required of nurses now, we do not have but very little time to give our patients theTLC which, I feel, is almost as important as medication or medical procedures.

  5. Kim

    Gone are the days of lengthy, leisurely stays. No longer are doctors finding excuses to admit “Grandma” or “Grandpa” for a few days so the family could go on vacation or have a bit of respite. Now, we have women undergoing outpatient mastectomies…being sent home with Jackson-Pratt drains and an altered body image all within the guise of being a “23-hour-admit”. Sad. The U.S. needed to get to the point of preventive care as being the norm before rushing patients in and out of the facilities. Unfortunately, it seems that the proverbial cart was put ahead of the horse.

  6. wow back then they made alot of money. my mom wents to be a nurse and she 30 or 40 years old.. .well im becoming an RN cause i love to help ppl… thats what i llikr to be when i get out of high school……….. so peace otu you all….

  7. Gerry Markie

    I graduated in the 60’s and the dress code was white dress, white hose, white shoes, hat, hair pulled back, no makeup, long acrylic nails. I was taught professionalism and the correct way to behave. Today most of the nurses I see look like they should be scrubbing toilets, frowsy hair, dirty tennis shoes, pencils in their hair. Actually they inspire no trust or confidence in me. What are the nursing school thinking when they put out nurses with values like this.

  8. Bonnie

    I graduated from a 3-year diploma school of nursing in Alabama in 1968. In spite of the fact that diploma schools were phased out in favor of BS degree programs for nurses, I cannot tell you the number of times over the years people have told me the diploma grads were the best nurses on the units. And I have to agree.

    Things began changing in medicine – for the worse- when the diploma programs ended, because in the diploma programs the focus was on direct, hands-on patient care, not management. Huge difference,folks. We were in the clinical setting within two weeks of starting school, and stayed there the entire three years, spending from 6 weeks to 3 months on each rotation. Not just one or two days as the standard these days. When we graduated, we went right to work. The idea that we would have to take courses at the hospital that hired us in order to be ready to work would have been laughed at back then. Now it’s standard, and nurses on the units who are already overworked, have to teach the new grads the things they should have learned in their 4 years of school but didn’t. How crazy is that?

    And we earned respect and learned to respect ourselves with those starched white uniforms and caps. I agree with Gerry Markie above – many nurses today look like slobs in their colored and heavily patterned scrubs and tennis shoes. I’m not saying we need to return to the days of starched caps and leather shoes, but something in between would be nice I think. We believed in, and lived, the term Professionalism once upon a time – a term lost long ago, I think.