Meet district nurse Elizabeth McPhee with her rather splendid BSA motorcycle in 1926. She is the headline image in a stunning online collection at the US National Library of Medicine. The exhibition, curated by Julia Hallam, of Liverpool University, who talks about it here, is based on 2,500 postcards collected over the years by American nurse Michael Zwerdling.
Postcards would, as you’d expect, provide the usual sex or saint stereotypes of nursing but there is much more to it than that…..
You see how race shaped nurse education from the African American nurses at the George A. Brewster Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida set up after the great fire in 1901 and the Lincoln School for Nurses established in New York the following year. There are Japanese Red Cross nurses from 100 years, various members of European royal families in nurse uniforms in World War One and a Nazi people’s welfare nurse helping folk at a train station in the 1930s.
It also goes into the modern era with a more accurate depiction of nursing, including the work of male nurses. It’s a real treat… Which brings us back to Elizabeth. The Clan Macrae Society funded various memorials after World War One but also a district nurse post in the parishes of Kintail and Glenshiel as “this was considered a better form of memorial to the gallant clansmen who had fallen than by wasting money on bricks and mortar.”
The association of Scottish nurses with motorcycles is probably due to the work of the Highlands and Island Medical Service which provided grants to nurses and doctors for essential means of transport so they could do their jobs. Many nurses recruited to the Highlands and Islands were Queen’s Nurses – specialists trained in district nursing.
There is another brilliant online collection produced by the Queen’s Nursing Institute in 2009 to mark 150 years of district nursing. Here you’ll find real life images of nurses and midwives from London’s East End as portrayed in Call the Midwife. But my all time favourite is Queen’s nurse Catriona MacAskill, weighing a baby on North Uist in the 1950s. Sheer joy….