Dr. Julia Hallam on Pictures of Nursing

Dr. Julia Hallam spoke today at the National Library of Medicine on “Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection.” Dr. Hallam is curator of NLM’s newest exhibition of the same name and a Reader in Film and Media at the University of Liverpool. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Informal portrait of Dr. Julia Hallam in front of a bookcase.Julia Hallam: I live in Liverpool, UK, and work at the University of Liverpool teaching film, media and popular culture. Growing up in the 1950s, I was an avid reader of the Sue Barton and Cherry Ames nursing career books; as a young woman I trained as a nurse and worked in critical care and later on, in public health. When I went to university as a mature student later in life, I studied film and literature. Today, much of my teaching and research explores ideas about the ways in which popular media shape our perceptions and attitudes to our selves, other people and other societies. A typical day in term time involves teaching students about these ideas, outside of term time I work on research projects such as Pictures of Nursing.

CN: Can you tell us about your work on the new NLM exhibition Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, which you presented in your lecture today?

JH:  As I worked my way through the postcards, I found myself drawn to particular images, and these became the basis for telling the stories which are now the stories on the exhibition banners. I wanted to reveal a history of nursing that demonstrates the power of the imagination to construct images and ideas about nurses and nursing, ideas and images that by the beginning of the twentieth century had transformed the lives of two generations of women.

CN: What sparked your interest in curating this exhibition?

JH: I am particularly interested in the intersection between the mythic, religious and secular archetypes of female nurses—as healers, guardians, angels, mothers and advocates—and the ways in which they are interpreted in popular art and photography to appeal to people at particular times in the life cycle, such as during illness and in pregnancy and motherhood and during major traumatic events such as epidemics and wartime.

CN: In your exploration of the Zwerdling Postcard Collection are there any items that stand out for you as particularly useful in your research, or for which you have special interest?

JH: In the collection, there are a large number of photographic portraits of nurses posing in their uniforms dating from around the end of the nineteenth century until the early 1930s. In my book Nursing the Image, I explore popular images of nursing in the period after World War II; these photographs have inspired me to research this earlier period in more depth.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the History of Medicine? What inspires you in your work and what do you hope readers will gain from it?

JH: Training as a nurse in the early 1970s in the UK, I became very interested in feminism and in the work of nursing sociologists such as Celia Davies who was writing about gender and the professional predicament in nursing. The nursing profession in the UK has become very aware in recent years about the ways in which it has been shaped by its historical identity as a profession for white middle-class women. When I was invited to curate the exhibition, I knew that I would want to explore some of these issues. I hope that my work inspires women and men to think about the ways in which our gendered, cultural and racial identities shape our life chances, and how we can work together for a more equal society where everybody’s contributions are equally valued.

Dr. Julia Hallam’s presentation was part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities.

Explore the exhibition Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection online or visit the special display in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine from September 2, 2014 to August 21, 2015.