Celebrating Nurses: A Visual History

Nursing Book Club

Celebrating Nurses: A Visual History

Moving pictures

By Christine Hallet, RN, Ph.D. (Barrons Educational Series, 2010)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

In Greek mythology, Hygieia was the goddess of health, the prevention of illness, and cleanliness — her name is the source of “hygiene.” Above, she is depicted with her father Asclepius, the god of medicine.


I work in an international setting, and I often get emails from patients who aren’t exactly sure what to call me. The messages come addressed to “Nurse Contillo” or sometimes “Dear Nurse Christine.” I find it endearing, but it poses a puzzle. If we think of the word “doctor,” we can picture someone of either sex, wearing a lab coat with a stethoscope in their pocket. But I’ve often wondered whom these patients are picturing when they write to me. What exactly does a nurse look like? Is it someone in scrubs? Someone in a white uniform? There are over two million of us in this country — what image do we put forward?

Celebrating Nurses: A Visual HistoryProfessor Christine Hallett, RN, Ph.D., tackles the problem of what we look like in her large format book Celebrating Nurses: A Visual History. Images are powerful and our history is a long one, according to this author, a registered nurse, professor of nursing history and director of the Center for the History of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Manchester, England.

Anything but Uniform

Hallett begins with the concept of healers. One early nursing prototype was Hygieia, goddess of health, who was often shown holding a serpent, the traditional symbol of wisdom and healing. Centuries later, we find St. Fabiola, founder of the first Christian hospital in the fourth century. Hallett has combed through medieval documents to bring us images of Hildegarde of Bergen, an early proponent of holistic practice, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who built a hospital in the German town of Marburg in the 13th century, feeding a pauper. Alongside these visual representations is a written history of nursing, from those early practitioners of the healing arts right up to today.

What I found most interesting were the later chapters of Celebrating Nurses, showing images of nurses representing the profession as we know it now. Through these pages, we see how our wardrobe has changed, from a uniform based on those worn by nuns, with long skirts, aprons and head coverings, to more useful scrubs, originally worn for purposes of infection control and now used in all different types of patient care.

I enjoyed the photos of nurses in the Arctic, wearing fur gloves and snowshoes; nurses from the Kentucky Frontier Nursing School on horseback, carrying their black bags; and public health nurses wearing their navy blue slacks or skirts, carrying the tools of their trade in sturdy cases. My commute to work each day seems pretty pedestrian by comparison.

Roots and Wings

The underlying story, however, is one of versatility. Nurses continue to evolve just as technology does, and the images in this book allow us to see just how flexibly we’ve kept pace. Hallett includes photos of those nurses whose research and writing have advanced our profession. They might be names we’re only slightly familiar with, but photos allow us to finally put a face with the name. While the book has a British bias, it also includes American, Australian and New Zealand nurses.

Where we came from is critical to our progress. We need to know what the public thinks about us and we should be controlling what the media says and how we’re portrayed, especially in movies and on television. Celebrating Nurses gives us an important place to start, and we should be grateful to Hallett for what was clearly a labor of love. It will be an important addition to any nursing library, whether it’s your personal bookshelf or the university reading room. Technology is advancing faster and faster, making it difficult to predict what the nurses of the future will be doing, but from viewing these pages, we can guess that they’ll be appropriately dressed and enjoying themselves. 

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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