Nurses—The Heart of Healing

By Ginny A. Roth

Nurse holding flowers.

La Sentimentale, ca. 1917
National Library of Medicine #D04628

 Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God’s spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts. —Florence Nightingale

The healer, the saint, the guardian, the mother—these are just a few of the ways the nurse has been viewed and portrayed throughout history.  Chances are we have all been physically cared for and emotionally affected by a nurse in our lifetime.  Aside from the traditional role of caretaker, they are leaders in healthcare and trusted advisers on health issues.  Every year in the United States nurses and the nursing profession are celebrated from May 6, National Nurses Day, through  May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, during an honorary week known as National Nurses Week, a time to celebrate and say “thank you” to nurses for their tireless efforts and boundless dedication.

The French postcard featured above, “La Sentimentale” (“The Sentimental One”) features a beautiful illustration of a Red Cross nurse with a thoughtful expression and a handful of flowers.  This postcard is one of 585 that will be included in Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, an exhibition that explores how images of nurses and nursing are informed by cultural values; ideas about women, men, and work; and by attitudes toward class, race, and national differences. The exhibition is scheduled to open to the public at the National Library of Medicine on Tuesday, September 2, 2014.  Guest Curator, Dr. Julia Hallam, University of Liverpool, will be giving a lecture on her curatorial work for the exhibition on the opening day.  The exhibition will highlight the nursing postcard collection of  Michael Zwerdling, registered nurse and postcard collector, from whom the Library acquired the collection in 2004 and who continued to contribute additions to the collection for several years after.

The collection, which consists of over 2500 postcards from around the world, is a stunning, visual history of nurses and nursing from the late 19th century into the 21st century, including imagery of nurses on the battlefield, social and cultural aspects of nursing, nursing school graduates, portraits of nurses, and the role of nurses in society.  Over 600 postcards from the collection are fully cataloged and can be viewed in the NLM Digital Collections. The majority of these images will be featured in the Digital Gallery of the Pictures of Nursing website, also to be launched on September 2, 2014.

portrait of Ginny outside Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.