Nursing History in Posters

For the past century, images of nurses were used in public health initiatives, wartime propaganda and cigarette advertising

Two nursing posters for the wars sitting side by side

Posters have punch. They have color. And, where they depict nurses and nursing, they provide an important historical record of the many changes that have taken place since Florence Nightingale first tried to bring respect to a once-disreputable profession.

That record spans many different languages, styles and purposes. Some posters are samples of wartime propaganda while others treat nurses as sex objects or glorified spokesmodels. Together, these images demonstrate, in one way or another, how nursing was perceived in a given era, both by outsiders and practitioners.

Although eventually overshadowed by radio, TV and the Internet, posters have been a vital form of communication since the printing press first made it possible to mass-produce them. Even today, they are still widely used for advertising, recruitment and public service announcements. Clever graphic design and striking images can deliver a wallop that a thousand words couldn’t convey.

Posters are also a highly collectible art form. Many posters were created by well-known professional artists like Gordon Grant, Howard Chandler Christy and Norman Rockwell. Today, writers like Suzanne Gordon also sometimes turn their messages into posters.

Posters form part of a country’s cultural heritage, often reprinted in academic books and hung in museums. Here in the United States, copies of the best and most significant posters reside in the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives and the Library of Congress.

Wartime Propaganda

For more than half a century, wars and military recruitment were a rich source of poster art. Governments and military forces hired prestigious painters and illustrators to help recruit more personnel and persuade the folks back home to buy war bonds or just maintain the proper patriotic spirit.

Military nurses are often in short supply in wartime. During many of the major wars of the last century, striking poster images of heroic nurses inspired young women to volunteer. One example from World War I, now part of the Smithsonian collection, is the 1918 poster “The Comforter,” by Gordon Grant. The poster depicts a nurse on the front lines, caring for an injured soldier. It captures the generous spirit of nursing while conveying — in carefully romanticized fashion — the real dangers wartime nurses sometimes face.

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It would be hard to find a more glorified image of nursing than “The Spirit of America,” a 1919 recruitment poster for the American Red Cross. With its flag-waving young nurse in a diaphanous gown, her eyes lifted to heaven, this image by Howard Chandler Christy is a prime example of how wartime poster art sought to spur viewers to action and foster patriotism at the same time.

Other wars also produced dramatic poster art. During the Spanish Civil War, which was marked by horrifying violence against both combatants and civilians alike, the Spanish Republican Army’s inspector general of military health issued a poster urging Spanish soldiers, “Respeta a la enfermera — por cuidarte dejó a los suyos” (“Respect the nurse — to care for you, she left her own”).

Wartime posters sometimes sought to remind civilians of the plight of nurses in uniform. For example, in the spring of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army captured seven Army and Navy nurses on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines. Throughout the war, posters circulated in the U.S. depicting the plight of these nurses in order to urge workers on the home front to do their part for the war effort. Some of those posters, like many propaganda images created in the U.S. during World War II, featured racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers.

Propaganda posters sometimes called for vengeance as well as solidarity. On May 14, 1943, a Japanese torpedo sank the clearly marked Australian hospital ship Centaur, claiming the lives of two-thirds of her passengers and crew. A dramatic poster appeared only weeks later. Artist Bob (Arthur) Whitmore based his vivid image of the flaming, sinking hospital ship’s overfilled life boats and desperate passengers on the account of Sister Ellen Savage, the only one of the 12 nurses onboard to survive. These posters were broadly distributed in Australia and made nurses the center of the Commonwealth’s wartime messaging campaign.

While few propaganda images approach the often grotesque depictions of Japanese troops during WWII, the wartime propaganda machine works feverishly to paint the enemy as evil and unprincipled. A 1917 British poster by Irish artist David Wilson (credited to him and “WFB”), which now hangs in Britain’s Imperial War Museum, even vilifies German nurses, presenting them as lacking any ethical or professional standards.

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Public Health and Marketing

Even in peacetime, posters serve an important instructional function. One 1910 poster from England’s National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis uses a nurse to remind viewers that spitting can spread TB.

Throughout World War II, war departments also waged a propaganda battle against sexually transmitted infections, then commonly known as venereal disease or V.D. Some lurid V.D. posters warned servicemen against “pickups” or “loose women,” but the nurses shown in a wartime poster by artist Ben Klein have a more wholesome image.

In addition to delivering public health messages, poster art has often used images of nurses to sell all manner of products, including cigarettes (“When Nurses Smoked in Hospitals” at WorkingNurse.com) and even motor fuels. A postwar ad for Gulf Oil’s No-Nox gasoline, featuring, featuring a nurse holding three newborns, is especially ironic considering that the fuel’s anti-knock ingredient, tetraethyl lead, has been linked to a wide array of health problems in young children.

Depicting the Modern Nurse

As nursing evolves, so does the messaging of nursing-related posters. In 2002, the Oregon Center for Nursing, seeking to recruit more men to the profession, created a well-known poster proclaiming, “Are You Man Enough … To Be a Nurse?” It was so popular that nursing organizations in other states created their own versions. The one seen here is from Florida Center for Nursing, Partners for a Healthy Community and Workforce Central Florida.

Modern posters are more likely to use photographs than painted artwork or illustrations, but the influence of vintage advertising and poster artists can still be felt. A 2009 poster by local artist Jessica Oyhenart-Ball evokes the flavor of WWII-era V.D. awareness posters, although, compared to the cheerful nurses in the wartime syphilis poster, Oyhenart’s sassy nurse looks more like the pinups sometimes painted on the sides of American bombers!

Although modern posters still stress that nursing has caring as its center, they usually avoid the saccharine tone of earlier work. The touching poster above, created by the International Council of Nurses (ICN) for International Nurses Day 2003, has a simple message about nurses’ compassion for patients with HIV/AIDS.

Finally, a much-shared 2001 message from Suzanne Gordon, still available as a bookmark as well as a poster, sums up so much about nursing both in the past century and today. It may not have the eye-catching artwork of some of the other posters featured here, but it makes its point colorfully, eloquently and with humor.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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