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Nursing as an Art Form

Pictures of Nursing

Pictures of Nursing

Did you know that Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, is considered by some to have been the first nurse? Or that nurses and nursing have been the frequent subjects of postcards? Those are but two of the intriguing facts in the Library of Medicine’s Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection now exhibiting in LSU Health New Orleans’ Ische Library.

The traveling exhibit is drawn from an archive of 2,588 postcards from American nurse and collector Michael Zwerdling, RN, acquired by the National Library of Medicine. It pictures a woman’s mission: service to humanity, nursing and respectability, the gender of nursing, nursing as a career, nursing today and the art of nursing – on postcards. Nursing has been represented in this art form for more than a hundred years. Many of the images included were from the “Golden Age” of postcards – from 1907 to 1920, although the entire collection spans a century of nursing images.

The exhibit is a fascinating look at how nurses have been perceived over the years around the world. It documents cultural values, ideas about women, men and work, as well as attitudes about class, race and national differences.

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A 1935 postcard for an Italian anti-tuberculosis public awareness campaign depicted the nurse as a battle-axe-wielding Amazon with the Cross of Lorraine symbolizing the fight against the disease. The exhibit explains that images of nurses in the European art traditions of the time were often based upon ancient feminine archetypes as healer, handmaiden, mother, angel and guardian or warrior.
Pictures of Nursing
Nursing as a profession, led by social reformers like Florence Nightingale, began 150 years ago. Images in the exhibit show the opportunities it offered women for economic independence, meaningful service to the community and travel through the military or Red Cross.

The section on gender includes historical images of men in nursing. Though long considered to be women’s work, men have performed nursing duties for hundreds of years. One postcard shows a group of male nurses at a hospital for the insane, a place where male nurses were commonly employed. The exhibit also portrays the recurring theme of female nurses as the male doctors’ handmaidens, an attitude that didn’t begin changing until the 1960s.

Pictures of Nursing
The exhibit explores the attitudes that influenced the way the nursing profession developed in the United Kingdom and the United States. Despite entrenched hierarchies of class and race, segregation and second-class status, African American nurses made meaningful contributions to both their patients and the profession. Though evidence of their accomplishments is scarce in this postcard collection, one image pictures a class of the Lincoln School for Nurses, which became regarded as one of the top training schools nationwide.
The 1980s ushered in the beginning of concerted efforts to counteract historical views of nursing. Diversity, equality, skill and expertise are celebrated in modern nursing. A hospital’s nursing recruitment postcard from 1999 depicts nurses as respected members of a health care team.

According to the Library of Medicine, Pictures of Nursing investigates the hold these images exert on the public imagination—then and now.

Pictures of Nursing
The exhibit is available for viewing in the Library Commons, LSU Health New Orleans Ische Library, third floor of the Resource Center until April 21.