Nurses Might Not Carry Lanterns Anymore, But They Still Shine

Look around London and you’ll see hundreds of circular blue ceramic plaques on buildings. For almost 150 years, they have marked the residences or workplaces of famous people like Charles Dickens, Alfred Hitchcock, Winston Churchill and Sylvia Pankhurst.

During my most recent visit to London, I spotted one of those plaques at 10 South Street in Mayfair. It was inscribed, “In a house on this site FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE 1820-1910 lived and died.”

I thought about that plaque when I visited the Columbus Museum of Art to see Shine On: Nurses in Art, an exhibit celebrating the contribution that nurses have made to society. There, I learned several things about Nightingale, how she transformed nursing from an expression of religious faith into a vital profession, and how nurses nurture infants, care for the aged and minister to the sick.

The title of the exhibition pays homage to Nightingale. During the Crimean War, the nightly rounds that she made to care for wounded soldiers earned her the nickname as “The Lady with the Lamp.” The exhibition includes an example of the collapsible concertina lantern that she carried on her rounds. When the object made of brass, linen and a candle was extended, it served as a lantern; when it collapsed, it became a candle holder.

Notes on NursingAs a result of her wartime experiences, Nightingale worked to introduce new standards in patient care. In 1860, she established the first secular nursing school in the world at St. Thomas Hospital in London. That same year, she wrote Notes on Nursing: What It Is, And What It Is Not. The exhibition includes a copy of the first American edition of her book, published by D. Appleton. In it, she advises women on how best to care for the health of their charges. Chapters cover the importance of ventilation and sunshine, cleanliness and avoiding unnecessary noise. “A nurse who rustles is the horror of the patient,” she wrote. “The fidget of silk and of crinoline, the rattling of keys, the creaking of stays and of shoes, will do a patient more harm than all the medicines in the world will do him good.” 

The exhibit also includes works by Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, George Bellows and Alfred Eisenstaedt, the creator of the famous photograph of a soldier kissing a nurse on VJ Day in New York City’s Times Square.

“Crying Baby with Nursemaid,” Norman Rockwell’s image for the cover of the October 24, 1936 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, is displayed next to books about nurses, such as the Cherry Ames series of 27 mystery novels by Helen Wells, where the heroine inspired girls to pursue a nursing career. An 1850 photo captures Clara Barton, the woman known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” during the Civil War who established the American branch of the Red Cross and became its first president in 1881.

Several recruiting posters convey the need for young women to become nurses and work in field hospitals, camps and convalescent hospitals during the first and second World Wars. Glenna Goodacre’s 1993 sculptural studies she created for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial are a reminder of the importance of modern-day wartime nursing. Across the gallery, a continuously playing loop of film clips demonstrate the portrayal of nurses in popular culture.

Historical objects complement the stories that sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs and posters in the exhibit tell. A pouch that 19th-century nurses attached to their belts held scissors, safety pins, a thermometer and other necessary tools. Pins from over 150 licensed nursing schools in Ohio convey the tradition of presenting medals to graduating nurses that Nightingale began at her London nursing school. The pins were originally modeled after the badges given to members of the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John the Baptist, a religious order that cared for those who were ill and wounded during the 12th-century Crusades.

Best of all is a uniform that an Ohio State University nursing student wore during the 1940s. A grey wool cape with red lining covers a white pinafore, similar to those worn by military and Red Cross nurses of the period. The exhibit explains that some believe that the traditional white nursing uniform suppresses nurses’ individuality as professionals. Others think that modern-day scrubs are a sign of the profession’s diminishing visibility. Visitors are challenged to think about whether whites or scrubs are best.

Shine On: Nurses in Art continues through June 21. Recognize a caring nurse in your life by uploading a photo to Instagram and tagging it #ShineOnCMA.

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