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ExhibitionPicturing the Gender of Nursing: Playing Doctors and Nurses

Popular games, toys, and stories promoted the idea that boys will be doctors or soldiers and girls will be nurses. In movies popular stars played nurses as self-sacrificing angels and doctors’ handmaidens. Television programs, such as Star Trek, continued to promote nursing as women’s work until the 1960s.

  • Three White children the girl is dressed as a nurse; the boys as soldier and sailor.

    Little Patriots, United States, ca. 1917

    Early 20th century photographic portraits of children in the United States and Europe frequently depicted girls dressed up as nurses and boys as soldiers or doctors.

  • White female nurse standing over a child in bed. White male doctor approaches.

    His First Case, ca. 1910

    Created by Grace G. Wiederseim (1877—1936)

    Produced by Alfred Schweizer Fine Art Publisher

    American illustrator Grace Wiederseim is best remembered for creating the Campbell Kids advertising campaign during the early 1900s. This cartoon, of a boy doctor attending to a sick doll while a girl nurse looks on, is typical of Wiederseim’s style at the time.

  • White children dressed as a nurse, doctor, and mother. All stand over a doll in a crib.

    Children playing doctor and nurse, France, ca. 1928

    The French were experts in hand-tinted studio postcards, which were individually painted with watercolor to create special effects. The rose-tinted background offsets a sentimental image of childhood, the white clad nurse and colorful mother frame the somberly dressed boy doctor at the center of the picture.

  • Anthropomorphic woodland animals. Badger doctor examines a chipmunk that the rabbit nurse holds.

    A Visit to the Doctor, 1960s

    Created by Angus Clifford Racey Helps (1913–1971)

    Produced by The Medici Society Ltd., England

    Racey Helps was an English illustrator who specialized in animals. In this medical scene, traditional gender roles are reinforced. The dominant animal, a badger, is shown as a male doctor and a much smaller creature, a rabbit, is a female nurse.

  • A White female child with a cut-out nurse’s uniform on the left.

    A children’s paper cut out game featuring a nursing uniform for a girl, 1975

    Produced by Littlehouse Publishing

    Toys and magazine advertisements persisted in depicting nursing as a career for girls until as late as the 1970s. One of the earliest cut out paper doll figures, created by Grace Wiederseim, dates from the 1900s.

  • A White woman looks in a mirror a faint image of the same woman in nursing uniform stands on right.

    Daydreaming of becoming a nurse, 1929

    Produced by Fotofolio Publishing, New York

    A woman looks into the mirror and sees herself as a nurse. From the 1920s—1960s, nursing figures in romantic novels, films, and career girl stories as a vocational service to a higher ideal, a way of life that promises emotional and spiritual fulfillment as well as economic independence.

  • White female child-actress (Shirley Temple) dressed as a nurse and looking at the viewer.

    Young actress Shirley Temple wearing a nurse costume, ca. 1935

    Produced by Fox Studios, United States

    Shirley Temple was America’s most popular child star in the 1930s, appearing in over 40 films. Here, she poses for the camera dressed as a nurse.

  • Two White film stars. Female nurse sits on the male doctors' leg to write in a notebook.

    June Collyer, who plays a nurse, with Richard Dix, who plays a doctor, in The Love Doctor, 1929

    Produced by Ross-Verlag Publishing, Berlin

    A German postcard advertises an American nurse and doctor comedy-romance movie. June Collyer plays a nurse working for a modern doctor (Richard Dix) who sets himself up as an expert in romantic relationships only to find that he has fallen hopelessly in love with his nurse.

  • Four White film starts, three White men dressed as soldiers, a White female as nurse.

    Madge Evans in Hell Below, 1933

    Produced by Film Weekly Publishing, United States

    In this still from a romantic drama set in wartime, Madge Evans plays nurse Jean Standish, and 1930s heartthrob Robert Montgomery plays the lieutenant who falls in love with her.

  • The cast of Star Trek in costume, 6 men and 2 women of various ethnic backgrounds.

    Star Trek; Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett Roddenberry) is fourth from the left, 1966—69

    Produced by Ludlow Sales Publishing, New York

    The original Star Trek series aired on NBC for three seasons. Majel Barrett Roddenberry played Nurse Christine Chapel (fourth from the left). By the end of the ship’s five-year mission, Chapel was training to be a doctor, playing out a perceived hierarchy of value between the two professions.

  • White female nurse's face in the foreground; White male surgeon in the background looks at her.

    A postcard reproduction of the cover of the Harlequin romance Surgeon’s Return, which features a nurse, 1999

    Produced by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.

    Following the success of medical dramas such as Dr. Kildare (NBC 1961—66) on television, doctor and nurse romance novels became best sellers, feeding romantic fantasies about nursing work.