Compoite image of a postcard featuring a drawing of a Red Cross nurse and the hadwritten back of a postcard set over a map.

Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection

By Erika Mills

For over a century, images of nurses and nursing have been featured frequently as the subjects of postcards—so much so that nursing postcards offer a visual history of the profession and shine a light on the cultural values that inform perceptions of nurses. The imagery that decorates these mailers and mementos reflects popular ideas about gender, race, class, national identity, and work, illustrating nursing’s changing place in society over the decades. Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Collection, the History of Medicine Division’s newest special display and online exhibition, explores nursing history by examining the different ways in which the profession has been depicted in a curated assortment of 20th-century postcards.

Curated by Julia Hallam, PhD, a professor of communication and media at the University of Liverpool, Pictures of Nursing highlights a variety of representations of nursing, including nurses as religious and traditional archetypes, as middle class, respectable career women, as gender-based stereotypes, and as skilled health workers, rendered in the artistic styles of the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition features a selection of items from the Zwerdling collection, an archive of over 2,500 postcards compiled by American nurse, Michael Zwerdling, RN, and recently-acquired by the NLM.

Here are some highlights from the exhibition:

An Asian woman in long dark clothing sits oudoors on a rock holding a bunch of lilies.
May, a mission nurse, Hankou, China, 1930s
Produced by Photochrom Co. Ltd., London
National Library of Medicine
Nurse May worked as an auxiliary nurse at the Hankou Union Hospital, where an English Protestant missionary, Gladys Stephenson, pioneered nurse training. By the early 1930’s the school was graduating 30 Chinese nurses a year. Stephenson was the principal of the nursing school from 1927 until she was imprisoned by the Japanese after the invasion in 1942.
Three men in white uniforms sit together posed for the camera.
Male nurses, Lakewood, NJ, ca. 1910
National Library of Medicine
The nursing uniform was a source of pride to both male and female nurses, although photographic portrait postcards of male nurses posing in their uniforms are comparatively rare.
A color halftone image of doctors and nurses in an operating room operating on a patient.
Operating team, United States, 1951
Produced by US Army Nurse Corps
National Library of Medicine
After World War II, nursing organizations showed a more accurate picture of their profession, like this image from a commemorative series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Army Nurse Corps. Their mission statement declares in part, “All actions and tasks must lead and work toward promoting the wellness of Warriors and their families…”

Pictures of Nursing is on display in the History of Medicine Division reading room until August 21, 2015. The online exhibition incorporates a “Digital Gallery,” which includes a selection of 585 postcards from the Zwerdling collection not shown in the special display. Education resources are also featured in the online exhibition, including a lesson plan for grades 9-10 that investigates the exhibition content; a higher education module; an online activity, and a robust selection of resources including K-12 suggested readings.

Come explore Pictures of Nursing online for yourself at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/picturesofnursing.

Erika MillsErika Mills is outreach coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

3 comments

  1. This was a very interesting post to view. I have a friend who is a male nurse. I will be forwarding this post on to him

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