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“Pictures of Nursing”: exhibit shows how nurse stereotypes have changed since the 19th century


From the “naughty nurse” to the “failed doctor,” nurses have endured countless stereotypes since the late 19th century, when the profession truly became a vocation. Now, a new exhibit on nurses called Pictures of Nursing at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) in Bethesda, Maryland is showing the evolution of pop culture depictions of nurses…via postcards.

“The postcard is a very fleeting art form, and one that in the age of electronic communication—email, Twitter, selfies, Flickr and Instagram—looks ever more anachronistic,” says Julia Hallam, a professor of film and media at the University of Liverpool who curated Pictures of Nursing. While postcards aren’t quite as popular today, they used to be a standard way of keeping in touch. Because of this, there are tons of postcards representing nurses at work and play.

In the past, postcards were also used to recruit new nurses, as well as for fundraising, advertising and propaganda. The postcard exhibit pulls from the NLM’s collection of 2,588 postcards (!) produced between 1893 and 2011, donated by former nurse and collector Michael Zwerdling. (Psst! We featured several of Zwerdling’s postcards here–click to check them out!)

Here are a few of the postcards on display:


“In selecting the cards, I 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,” says Hallam. “From sexualized pin-up images of the 1950s and 1960s to fierce patriots during wartime to angelic matriarchs of the Victorian era, the postcards portray a pantheon of nurses in popular culture through comics, paintings and photographs.”

Pictures of Nursing is on view at the National Library of Medicine through August 21, 2015, and the exhibit’s online gallery features 585 additional images to explore.

Source: Smithsonian magazine

Nurses, if you live nearby, would you go and check out this exhibit in person? And how do you feel about the ways that nurses are currently represented in mainstream culture? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!

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