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A Tribute to Nursing
A proud profession’s story is in the cards

From too-cute depictions by top children’s book illustrators to grim wartime propaganda,antique postcards featuring nurses offer a window on the profession’s history and evolving image in the public eye. Alumnus and nurse Michael Zwerdling ’65 explores this subject in his book Postcards of Nursing: A Worldwide Tribute, published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. (www.nursepostcard.com)

 

There could be few more powerful voices touting the virtues and rewards of the nursing profession than Michael Zwerdling’s. The Class of 1965 alumnus brings the perspective of one who came to the field later in life — he earned his UVM degree in psychology and became a nurse in 1993 after careers in market research and as a martial arts teacher. Besides being meaningful, challenging work, Zwerdling is frank that being a good nurse made him a much better person. “It taught me kindness.” he says.

His nursing career has been spent in one of the field’s most demanding places — the emergency room of an urban hospital in Washington, D.C. “You cannot bullshit in the ER,” Zwerdling says. “You’re looking across the bed at your own future.” He notes that the degree of autonomy and demand on an emergency room nurse’s thinking skills requires reaching deep in much the same way he did while teaching and practicing meditative forms of martial arts.

As Zwerdling became immersed in his new vocation, it soon meshed with a longtime avocation, collecting postcards. As he built an extensive, international collection of nursing postcards, he began to nurture vague thoughts of pulling them together in a book. A sign in a gas station that read, “A dream is a goal with no energy behind it,” kicked Zwerdling into action.

Inspiration comes in strange places and the relative ease with which Zwerdling landed a publishing contract was improbable, as well. “It came together as if it was providential,” he says and credits many for helping him with the extensive work that went into the book. If some of the images in Zwerdling’s collection tread uncomfortable ground such as Nazi propaganda or unearth long-dead stereotypes, the author is unapologetic. “We have to look at our own history, how we’ve changed physically and mentally, how we are perceived and how we’ve been perceived,” he says.

The author/nurse’s greatest hope for his book is that it can give his colleagues a bit of what they give others. “We have a long history and many admirers, across the world and across time,” Zwerdling says. “For a nurse, looking at these images should be therapeutic after a hard day’s work.”

RIGHTEOUS WARRIORS The Cross of Lorraine is among the symbols associated with the “Nurse Guardian” archetype, says Zwerdling. He notes that the fight against tuberculosis, “the most publicly embraced anti-disease crusade of the 20th century” was modeled after the Christian Crusade and adopted the Cross of Lorraine as its symbol in 1902. “Just as in the first Christian Crusade, thousands surged forth in support,” Zwerdling writes. “Supporters and volunteers were the army victorious. Children, by raising funds, could become pages, squires, and knights. Bacteriologists and physicians were seen as ‘heroes engaged in a sanctified struggle against the overwhelming beast of infection.’ The nurses became the guardians and defenders, standing between the evil and its intended victims.”
England, c. 1910.

GLAMOUR GIRLS Glamour art postcards from the first decades of the 20th century had a questionable influence on the nursing profession — raising its profile, but creating false impressions. Zwerdling writes: “A caring expression on a nurse’s face becomes a bit more sensual, a uniform becomes slightly more fashionable, dark circles of fatigue around the eyes transform to an eye-shadow makeup effect. Because glamour postcards far outnumber realist postcards, the glamour postcard had a greater impact on nursing as a profession. For example, when the call for nurses went out in World War I, women who had a distorted conception of nursing rushed to enlist. Their actions were motivated, at least in part, by the visions of glamour and romance the postcard helped promulgate. Whether this ultimately harmed or helped the profession is open to debate, but in the short run it caused a major headache for the nurses responsible for screening the candidates.” The postcard is the work of Giovanni Nanni (1888-1969), a well-known Italian painter-illustrator.
Italy, c. 1925.

 

PROMISES OF ROMANCE The leap from glamorous images of nurses to romantic ones is a predictably short one. Many postcards from the World War I era and before suggest, not so subtly, the possibilities of nurse-patient romance. Zwerdling writes that the depictions “caused the profession difficulty, not because the fantasy was completely false, but because it has been blown ridiculously out of proportion.” He adds that wartime postcards “gave the impression that romance was a natural, expected outcome of being wounded in war — a reward for service, if nothing more.”
United States, c. 1908.

 

TRUSTED FACES A 2002 Gallup poll placed nurses second (behind only firefighters) in the public’s ranking of the honesty and ethics of professionals. The study indicated that Americans trusted nurses more than doctors, pharmacists, engineers, dentists, and clergy, Zwerdling notes. Despite that fact, nurses aren’t used frequently in contemporary advertising except for promoting aspects of healthcare, the author says. Such wasn’t the case early in the 20th century and during a resurgence in the 1950s when images of nurses lent credibility to consumer products from beer to bread.
Interstate Brands West Corporation. Kansas City, Missouri. 1951.

ANGELS OF MERCY Nurses have become so closely associated with compassion that the profession has come to symbolically represent the virtue, says Zwerdling. Artists, on postcards and through other media, have frequently made the metaphorical link between compassion, nurses, and angels. Nurses sprout wings, appearing in a variety of incarnations that bridge the human and divine. “Although the Nurse Angel is an artistic metaphor, she is often literally real in the minds of patients, especially in extreme situations,” Zwerdling writes. “A nurse on any battlefield, or in any situation where, without intervention, pain and death are inevitable, is most definitely a manifestation of salvation. Who can say, in such situations, that salvation is not divine in origin?”
Belgium, c. 1916.

 

 

FAMOUS NURSE Edith Cavell, an English nurse, was matron of a Red Cross hospital and nursing school in Belgium during the German occupation of World War I. Her arrest, trial, and execution for assisting in the escape of more than 200 allied soldiers would make her the 20th century’s most famous nurse. A British propaganda campaign followed her execution, and Zwerdling notes that, “Her death did more to stoke the fires of hatred against the Germans than any other incident in the war.” In the month following Cavell’s execution, enlistment in the British army leapt dramatically — with 113,000 signing on for service, a jump of some 42,000 from the previous month’s total. The card shown is the work of Italian artist Tito Corbella.
England, 1915.

 

AT WAR The archive of nursing postcards linked to war is an unfortunately extensive one in the 20th century. Michael Zwerdling’s book includes many from World War I, the heyday of nurse-related postcards, but also touches upon a range of other conflicts — the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War II. Zwerdling stresses the wide gulf that sometimes separates reality and the scene on a postcard, especially when war is the subject matter. “War is grotesque, not picturesque,” he writes. “We must be careful not to fall into the delusion of thinking otherwise, all the more so since the conditions and ideologies that have fomented war in the past are remarkably similar to those in the present.” The card pictured features the Italian peace keeping force in Lebanon during the early 1980s.
Italy, 1982.