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ExhibitionPicturing the Gender of Nursing

The idea that nursing is exclusively women’s work has a long history. The reality, however, is far more complex. For hundreds of years, men have undertaken aspects of nursing work often in all-male institutions such as religious organizations and the military. Yet, their contributions are largely invisible.

Children learned that nursing is women’s work through games, toys, and stories. Girls were brought up to be nurses, while boys were raised to be soldiers and doctors.

  • Fifteen White male nurses sitting in a group on a grass lawn.

    Group of male nurses of Dixmont Hospital, PA, ca. 1910

    Created by D. W. Short

    Produced by Herbert E. Sloan Publishing

    Dixmont Hospital for the Insane originally opened in 1862, as a self-sustaining community that housed up to 1,500 patients. Male nurses were commonly employed in psychiatric hospitals and sanatoria. As more lucrative employment became available in factories and offices their numbers declined.

  • Side by side groups of White nurses, on the left is a group of men, and on the right are women.

    Trained nurses of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, MI, ca. 1908

    Produced by Battle Creek Sanitarium

    Battle Creek Sanitarium employed equal numbers of male and female nurses to look after its wealthy clientele.

  • Three White male nurses in white uniform sitting and looking at the viewer.

    Male nurses, Lakewood, NJ, ca. 1910

    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 White male doctor and female nurse standing at the bedside of a White patient.

    Una voce dolce, una mano lieva (A sweet voice, a gentle hand), 1935

    Produced by Italian Fascist National Federation for the Fight Against Tuberculosis, Rome

    The female nurse imagined as the male doctor’s handmaiden or assistant is a recurring theme in 20th-century images of nursing and medicine. This started to change in the 1960s, when women from all walks of life began to demand equal opportunity and equal representation.